MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Pharmacy prescriptions for the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine skyrocketed in Minnesota during just a few days in March.

That’s before the FDA issued a strong warning against using it as a possible treatment for COVID-19. And behind-the-scenes, the sharp increase in demand made Minnesota officials increasingly alarmed.

New data shows first time prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine unexpectedly jumped on March 19. The same day President Donald Trump began calling it a possible “miracle drug” against COVID-19 — describing “very, very encouraging results.”

The president’s words had impact. The New York Times reported a 1,235% surge nationwide.

Normally, prescribers wrote an average of 683 prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine a day. But after the president’s comments, the daily average skyrocketed to 31,000.

And in Minnesota, new data reveals prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine spiked 286% in just two weeks from March 15 to March 31. That’s according to a study from IPM.ai, which is a subsidiary of a Massachusetts-based company, Swoop, specializing in health care data and analytics based on artificial intelligence.

IPM.ai compared prescriptions for the drug during the last two weeks of March 2019 and March 2020. The study found that despite the potentially dangerous side effects of hydroxychloroquine, the number of prescribers in Minnesota jumped from 68 to 188, and Minnesota pharmacists were raising serious questions.

Through mid-April, hydroxychloroquine prescriptions spiked the most in Midwest hot spots where the coronavirus is worst — like Michigan and Illinois.

Here’s a list of Midwest states and the spike in hydroxychloroquine prescriptions:

  • Minnesota 286%
  • Wisconsin 299%
  • Iowa 430%
  • South Dakota 86%
  • North Dakota 305%
  • Michigan 1000%
  • Illinois 1590%

In Minnesota, patients who needed it for arthritis and lupus faced shortages.

Pharmacists questioned whether they were required to fill prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine if there was no evidence of the drug’s effectiveness on COVID-19.

The State Board of Pharmacy received reports from local pharmacies of practitioners trying to get the drug for themselves or their families, or hoarding supplies by stockpiling.

State officials say the Minnesota surge was so troubling. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order March 29, allowing pharmacies to refuse prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine as treatment for COVID-19.

Here’s the order:

I authorize the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, established pursuant to Minnesota Statutes 2019, section 151.02, to enforce the following medication dispensing limitations, until termination of the peacetime emergency declared in Executive Order 20-01. A prescription drug order for chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine must contain a diagnosis appropriate for the use of these medications and be dispensed for no more than 30 days at a time.

A statement from the governor’s office said the order was meant to head off possible shortages:

These medications are routinely used for treatment of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other chronic medical conditions. Increased demand of these medications may result in shortages. To mitigate potential shortages, I have concluded that during this peacetime emergency the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, must have authority to exercise appropriate discretion to limit dispensing of these medications.

Meanwhile, after that 286% jump in Minnesota prescriptions, on April 25, the Board of Pharmacy published this warning from the FDA — taking the drug for COVID-19 could result in serious health consequences.

Here’s the warning:

The FDA is aware of reports of serious heart rhythm problems in patients with COVID-19 treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, often in combination with azithromycin and other QT prolonging medicines. We are also aware of increased use of these medicines through outpatient prescriptions. Therefore, we would like to remind health care professionals and patients of the known risks associated with both hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. We will continue to investigate risks associated with the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine for COVID-19 and communicate publicly when we have more information. hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19.

Here are some of the sources we used for this Reality Check:

New York Times: Prescriptions Surged as Trump Praised Drugs in Coronavirus Fight
FDA cautions against use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems
Gov. Tim Walz Executive Order – Authorizing Minnesota Health-Related Licensing Boards to ModifyRequirements During the COVID-19 Peacetime Emergency
MN Board Of Pharmacy: Frequently Asked Questions: COVID-19
MN Board Of Pharmacy: Main Page
Swoop: Hydroxychloroquine Prescription Volume Changes During COVID-19

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Pat Kessler

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