Outcast Republican senator is earning some GOP support for COVID-19 bills

Some senators endorse measures favoring unproven drugs and banning vaccine and mask requirements

By: - January 21, 2022 12:02 am

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Chesterfield Sen. Amanda Chase has been kicked out of her local Republican party, left the chamber’s Republican Caucus and faced formal censure for baseless claims of election fraud, a vote that saw Republican colleagues openly criticize her on the Senate floor.

That hasn’t stopped many of them from supporting her bills to roll back COVID-19 protective measures. On Wednesday, Republicans on the Senate’s General Laws Committee unanimously supported Chase-sponsored legislation that would have classified mask mandates and vaccine requirements as illegal discrimination. On Thursday, all six Republicans on the Senate Education and Health committee supported a bill that would have banned the Virginia Board of Health from disciplining doctors who prescribed hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to patients with COVID-19.

Democrats, who still hold a slim majority in the chamber, ultimately voted down both bills. But the wide support they’ve enjoyed from Republicans underscore the hyperpartisanship that’s largely come to define the COVID-19 pandemic. Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, once suggested that Chase’s behavior indicated “a bit of a call for help.” But on Thursday, he seemed receptive to the idea that doctors could use more flexibility in prescribing drugs for “off-label” use, a term that generally refers to using a medication for a condition it’s not approved to treat.

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“I think the issue is even broader than this,” said Newman, who once served as chair of the Education and Health committee, making an unsuccessful motion to incorporate the legislation into a wider bill aimed at off-label prescribing more generally. “We should not be restricting physicians at all — three to four years ago, when I was involved, it was never done.”

It’s not the first time Virginia legislators have debated over the use of unproven drugs to treat COVID-19. In a 2020 special session, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, submitted a House resolution encouraging the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus. The measure failed in a 29-65 vote, with many Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the measure.

Since then, the issue has only grown more contentious. While the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine dominated headlines at the start of the pandemic, it’s largely been supplanted by ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug that’s been embraced by fringe doctors’ groups, conservative politicians and pop culture figures such as Joe Rogan. Neither drug has shown strong clinical efficacy against COVID-19, and the FDA warned against ivermectin, specifically, after some patients injured themselves by self-medicating with a form of the drug intended for livestock.

That hasn’t stopped some doctors from prescribing it. One supporter of Chase’s bill is Dr. Paul Marik, a former Sentara physician who sued the hospital system over its ban on prescribing and administering ivermectin to COVID-19 patients. A Fauquier County hospital was also sued and court-ordered to provide ivermectin after declining the treatment for one patient, who died despite receiving multiple doses of the drug. 

Chase compared her bill to Virginia’s 2015 “Right to Try” law, which gave terminally ill patients access to experimental medications that have passed initial FDA trials but haven’t been approved for widespread use. Other Republicans have also defended the legislation — and some of Chase’s other bills — through the lens of individual rights. 

“I’ll just say, we have recently made medical marijuana available in Virginia because we believe there are decisions that can be made between doctors and patients about the risks and value of medications and how they’re used,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing OBGYN who also supported Chase’s proposed legislation to make mask and vaccine mandates illegal.

State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

“I think we have to be consistent,” she continued. “This is something that needs to be reviewed between a patient and a doctor and there should be no obstructions to prescribing these medications.”

“I think a lot of Republicans think that the nation has overreacted to COVID-19,” added Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, who said after the meeting that Chase’s bills represented widespread GOP viewpoints.

“We did not agree with shutting down schools, we didn’t agree with shutting down the economy, we don’t agree with vaccine and mask mandates,” he said. “That’s a Republican position. And I guess Amanda Chase agrees with that Republican position.”

When it comes to hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, though, Virginia medical societies say legislation is unnecessary. The Virginia Department of Health Professions has not taken any public disciplinary action against a provider for administering either drugs for the treatment of COVID-19, according to spokesperson Diane Powers. And federal regulations already allow for off-label prescribing as long as it’s widely accepted by medical experts as an appropriate treatment.

“From our perspective, physicians can already do this, so it doesn’t need to be in the Code of Virginia,” said Clark Barrineau, assistant vice president of government affairs for the Medical Society of Virginia. A separate House bill would prohibit hospitals from taking action against providers who administer off-label drugs, but Barrineau said that’s also unnecessary.

“My understanding is that the rules of the road for the practice of medicine at hospitals are set by physicians,” he said. “And so that’s still doctors being left in charge.”

It’s unlikely that any bill addressing hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin would gain favor with Democrats on the committee, who had little patience for Thursday’s contentious hearing. One speaker supporting Chase’s bill told Chairwoman Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, that she’d “pay” for cutting off debate after the standard five minutes on both sides.

“You need to open your eyes folks — people are dying because they can’t get treatment with ivermectin,” the woman yelled. “Pharmacists across this nation are prohibiting it.”

“That’s because they don’t want to get sued,” retorted senior Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

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