FAYETTEVILLE -- Medical treatment for detainees in the Washington County jail is done on a voluntary basis, including any treatment offered for the coronavirus, according to Chief Deputy Jay Cantrell.
"It's all voluntary," Cantrell said. "They are able to refuse any medication they're offered. Even with the vaccine, it's all voluntary."
Cantrell said the sheriff's office staff spent much of the day Wednesday fielding questions and requests for information after it was confirmed some detainees had been treated for covid-19 with ivermectin.
Ivermectin has been the subject of controversy with some advocates arguing it's effective in treating covid while the federal Food and Drug Administration has said the drug hasn't been approved to treat covid and could be dangerous. The agency said it has received reports of patients who have required medical support and have been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.
Cantrell said Tuesday that there were 22 detainees who had tested positive and 293 detainees who possibly had been exposed or were in quarantine under the guidelines put in place last year to limit the spread of the virus in the jail. The jail population Tuesday was 693, Cantrell said.
Sheriff Tim Helder said during a meeting of the Quorum Court's Finance and Budget Committee that ivermectin was being used in the jail. Helder said that after the Tuesday night meeting he received an email from Karas Correctional Health in July detailing the potential use of ivermectin. The email didn't say the drug was being used, and Kelly Cantrell, public information officer for the Sheriff's Office, clarified Wednesday that Helder only learned ivermectin was being used Tuesday afternoon.
Karas doesn't bill separately for medications prescribed, Cantrell said, and the Sheriff's Office has no records of how many detainees may have been prescribed ivermectin.
The use of ivermectin drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the state Public Defender Commission along with several news organizations. Both the ACLU and the Public Defender Commission made public-records requests for information on the use of ivermectin in the jail.
The ACLU criticized the use of ivermectin in the jail as "medical experimentation" and an "unapproved treatment" for covid-19.
"No one -- including incarcerated individuals -- should be subject to medical experimentation," said Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. "Sheriff Helder has a responsibility to provide food, shelter and safe, appropriate care to incarcerated people. The FDA has said that misuse of ivermectin for covid-19 can cause serious harm including seizures, comas, and even death. The detention center's failure to use safe and appropriate treatments for covid-19, in conjunction with Sheriff Helder's request to use covid-19 relief money to expand the jail, illustrates the larger systemic problem of mistreatment of detainees and over incarceration in Arkansas that has persisted -- even in the midst of a pandemic."
Helder said Aug. 19 that he isn't going to second-guess or override the decisions of the medical staff. He said during the pandemic that only one detainee has been hospitalized, briefly, for covid out of more than 400 who were treated.
"I am not in a position to dictate to my medical staff what they prescribe," Helder said. "They have had a regimen of treatment since this began a year, year-and-a-half ago and it has worked well. When you talk about experimentation, I don't think that's fair."
Shannon Jenkins, public information officer for the Benton County sheriff's office, said Turn Key Health is the health care provider for the jail. Jenkins said ivermectin isn't being used in the Benton County jail.
Messages left Wednesday seeking comment from Karas Correctional Health weren't immediately returned. In the email sent to the sheriff's office in July, Dr. Rob Karas recommended the use of ivermectin as part of a preventive treatment. Karas said in the email he has used ivermectin himself and has had family members using the drug as well as advocating his employees who aren't vaccinated take it.
The email includes a link to two treatment protocols from the group Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance that include the use of ivermectin. The group's website also includes a disclaimer stating the protocols are "solely for educational purposes regarding potentially beneficial therapies for covid-19. Never disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read on our website and releases."