Hospitals overwhelmed by ivermectin victims? How a viral story fell apart
(Screenshot via KFOR)

On Sept. 6, local Oklahoma news outlet KFOR-TV reported that so many people in the state were overdosing on the anti-parasite drug ivermectin that emergency rooms and ambulance services were backed up.

According to the report, Dr. Jason McElyea said "patients are packing his eastern and southeastern Oklahoma hospitals after taking ivermectin doses meant for a full-sized horse, because they believed false claims the horse de-wormer could fight COVID-19." The article then quotes McElyea as saying: "The ERs are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they can get definitive care and be treated."

Multiple news outlets picked up the story and ran with it, including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Business Insider, as well as MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.

As the stories gained traction, a large hospital that McElyea is affiliated with put a statement on its website's homepage denying the doctor's claims, saying that "Dr. McElyea has not worked at our Sallisaw location in over 2 months."

"NHS Sequoyah has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin. This includes not treating any patients for ivermectin overdose," the statement read. "All patients who have visited our emergency room have received medical attention as appropriate. Our hospital has not had to turn away any patients seeking emergency care. We want to reassure our community that our staff is working hard to provide quality healthcare to all patients. We appreciate the opportunity to clarify this issue and as always, we value our community's support."

As the Columbia Journalism Review points out, many noted that in his original interview with KFOR, McElyea "hadn't said anything about ivermectin cases crowding out other patients, but that the initial story and subsequent coverage had linked separate comments about ivermectin overdoses and scarce beds."

Also notable was a story published in the New York Daily News on Sept. 2, one day after KFOR's article was published, where the managing director of the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information, Scott Schaeffer, said that since "the beginning of May, we've received reports of 11 people being exposed to ivermectin." That statement alone — 11 reports of ivermectin exposure in the entire state — contradicts KFOR's claims that ivermectin overdoses were overcrowding hospitals.

The crumbling of the story provided great fodder for conservative news outlets and commentators who said it was just another example of liberal media disparaging rural people," Columbia Journalism Review noted. While Rolling Stone added an update to their article citing the information that casts doubt on the story, The Guardian has not yet updated their article and the tweet promoting the story on Rachel Maddow's account is still live. The KFOR article has not been updated either.

But according to the Columbia Journalism Review, the conservative pile-on left out some key details.

"The statement that there had been no ivermectin cases came from a single Oklahoma hospital—and while McElyea wasn't working at that particular hospital when he made his comments, he had worked there previously, and works for an agency that provides services to various local hospitals," writes CJR's Mathew Ingram. "McElyea also stated in his original interview that there had been some ivermectin overdose cases in the hospitals he was familiar with, although he didn't say these cases had taken ICU beds away from other patients. He has since told another Oklahoma news outlet he was misquoted by KFOR."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that ivermectin has not been approved for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans. "Ivermectin tablets are approved [for humans] at very specific doses for some parasitic worms, and there are topical (on the skin) formulations for head lice and skin conditions like rosacea. Ivermectin is not an anti-viral (a drug for treating viruses)."