PHOENIX — Banner Health experts are warning the public against using "inappropriate medications" after a Valley man died and his wife was hospitalized after taking chemicals they believed could help protect against coronavirus.
On Sunday, the man and his wife, both in their 60s, took chloroquine phosphate, an additive commonly used to clean fish tanks, because it kills algae.
Within 30 minutes, the two experienced severe side effects that required admittance to a nearby Banner Health facility. The man died and his wife remains under critical care, according to a hospital spokesperson.
A family friend reached out to ABC15 and identified the couple as Gary and Wanda. The family has asked that their last name not be included, due to privacy concerns.
Wanda, who was able to throw up the chemicals and did not have as severe a cardiac reaction, is expected to survive.
"They were inseparable," said Keriann Cerski Furreboe, a close friend of the couple, who had been married for 20 years and moved to the Valley from Iowa in 2012.
Gary and Wanda were also scared of COVID-19.
"When she called me last night, she was obviously in shock," said Cerski Furreboe, recounting what Wanda told her.
"She said, 'We thought we were going to get sick, so we took something. We started to get weird reactions so I called the poison control center and they took us to the hospital and his heart stopped.'"
Wanda told her friends the couple decided to mix the powder with a drink because they had heard the president and other officials touting the drug chloroquine as a possible treatment for COVID-19.
"It's shown very encouraging early results. And we're going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately" said President Trump at a recent White House briefing.
President Trump declared chloroquine, which has been used for malaria, a “game-changer” in the effort to develop a coronavirus treatment and pre-maturely announced the drug had been “approved."
"It’s a very powerful and useful drug," said Dr. Daniel Brooks, Banner Poison and Drug Information Center medical director. "Every single medication has a side effect. Unfortunately, we predicted this."
Dr. Brooks said that many people are quick to create misinformation online, to either profit from the sale of potential drugs or to sow confusion and chaos.
"There’s a lot of sensationalism and a lot of profit to be made trying to sell these resources to vulnerable viewers," he said.
One Facebook user, claiming to live in Tempe, posted about chloroquine phosphate and said it could "save ur life."
According to CNN, three people in Nigeria have already overdosed on chloroquine. Mexican news media is reporting that the drug is selling out of stores. On eBay, prices for everything involving 'chloroquine' has skyrocketed.
"It shows that there are a lot of scared people in this country that are going to go to drastic measures that normally are not in their personality," said Cerski Furreboe. "They’re not the kind of people that go and do weird home remedies. They were being led by people with power to do that, saying this is okay, this is approved. And it wasn’t. They should be held responsible."
"These medications have significant cardiac effects as well as affecting other organ systems," said Dr. Brooks. "No one that is outside of an intensive care unit with a known diagnosis of COVID-19 should be taking this medication. No one."
Gary tragically realized that too late. "
'His heart stopped, we took something we shouldn’t have,'" said Furreboe, recalling Wanda's words.
“Given the uncertainty around COVID-19, we understand that people are trying to find new ways to prevent or treat this virus, but self-medicating is not the way to do so,” said Dr. Brooks. “The last thing that we want right now is to inundate our emergency departments with patients who believe they found a vague and risky solution that could potentially jeopardize their health.”
It's unclear how much of the drug the couple took, but initial conversations between emergency responders and Wanda indicate the couple overdosed. "It seems like they took several days worth. So it does meet the loose criteria of an overdose," said Dr. Brooks.
Some physicians have recently come out saying that the medication chloroquine, which has been used to treat malaria since the 1940s, can be effective at preventing as well as treating the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a close cousin of COVID-19.
But Banner Health experts say the use of specific treatments, including those described as "anti-COVID-19" is not recommended for any non-hospitalized patients.
“We are strongly urging the medical community to not prescribe this medication to any non-hospitalized patients,” Dr. Brooks said of chloroquine.
He says that hydroxychloroquine is very similar to chloroquine phosphate but it is the prescription medication that is available around the world.
"The Devil is in the details. The active ingredient for both these products is essentially the same. But at this point, we do not know if any medication is effective to prevent or treat COVID-19 or coronavirus," said Dr. Brooks.
Chloroquine, or hydroxychloroquine, has been approved to treat and prevent malaria since 1944. But no drug has been approved to treat COVID-19, and a vaccine is estimated to remain at least a year away.
According to Banner, most of the patients who do become sick with coronavirus will only require care for their specific symptoms and should self-isolate to prevent infecting others.
"The vast majority, we are thinking around 85 to 90% of people, are going to get through a COVID-19 infection with supportive care only," said Dr. Brooks. "Do not take any medications, specifically for COVID-19, without being hospitalized."