FAYETTEVILLE -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed a federal lawsuit against the Washington County jail, Sheriff Tim Helder and Dr. Robert Karas on Thursday for giving detainees ivermectin as a covid-19 treatment.
The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Several detainees contend that they were unknowingly given ivermectin at the jail without being told the nature, contents or potential side effects of the drug. The lawsuit says they were told the treatment consisted of "vitamins," "antibiotics," and/or "steroids."
The lawsuit contends that detainees were given ivermectin as early as November 2020 and didn't become aware of what the treatment was until July. Helder told the Washington County Quorum Court's Finance and Budget Committee in August that Karas Correctional Health had been prescribing ivermectin as a treatment at the jail, according to the ACLU.
"No one -- including incarcerated individuals -- should be deceived and subjected to medical experimentation," said Gary Sullivan, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas, in a news release. "Sheriff Helder has a responsibility to provide food, shelter, and safe, appropriate care to incarcerated individuals. The Federal Food and Drug Administration has said that misuse of ivermectin for covid-19 can cause serious harm including seizures, comas, and even death. The detention center failed to use safe and appropriate treatments for covid-19, even in the midst of a pandemic, and they must be held accountable."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved ivermectin for use in treating or preventing covid-19 in humans, according to the lawsuit. It's approved to treat some parasitic worms, head lice and skin conditions but isn't an antiviral drug.
Under Arkansas law, medical providers have a legal duty to warn a patient of potential hazards of future medical treatment, according to the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs in the case include Edrick Floreal-Wooten, Jeremiah Little, Julio Gonzales and Dayman Blackburn, who were housed in a quarantine block at the jail. The lawsuit says the men were given inappropriately high doses of ivermectin.
Karas defended his use of ivermectin to treat covid-19 in a statement in August. Karas said he had prescribed it to prisoners and patients at his clinics since late 2020.
"In my medical judgment, weighing the known risks and side effect profile of ivermectin against the potential benefits supports the administration of ivermectin (which we obtained from a licensed pharmacist in dosages and compounds formulated for humans) to covid-19 patients," Karas said.
Karas said he was trying to prevent death or serious illness, and none of the 500-plus people to whom he had given ivermectin had been hospitalized, intubated or died.
Karas also urged people to get vaccinated for covid-19 and warned them against any self-medication.
Helder said in late August that he learned after the fact that ivermectin was used in the jail and that he wouldn't second-guess or override the decisions of the medical staff.
Chief Deputy Jay Cantrell said medical treatment for detainees is done on a voluntary basis, including any treatment offered for covid-19.
"The truth, however, was that without knowing and voluntary consent, Plaintiffs ingested incredibly high doses of a drug that credible medical professionals, the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all agree is not an effective treatment against covid-19 and that if given in large doses is dangerous for humans," according to the ACLU lawsuit. "But this was no deterrent to Defendants, whose actions affronted Plaintiffs' personal autonomy, violated their constitutional rights, and jeopardized their well-being."
Floreal-Wooten told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in August that he contracted covid-19 in the jail while serving 90 days on a parole violation. He and other detainees refused to take the treatments offered to them at the jail after learning that they contained ivermectin, he said.
The drug caused strong abdominal pains and a loss of appetite, Floreal-Wooten said. Other detainees experienced vision issues, diarrhea, bloody stools and/or stomach cramps, according to the lawsuit.
"To add insult to injury, Plaintiffs were subject to the payment of fees for medical examinations they sought after suffering side effects from the ivermectin treatment," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction prohibiting the practice in the future and a medical evaluation, done by an independent medical provider, for detainees given ivermectin.
The Arkansas State Medical Board has been investigating complaints filed against Karas over the use of ivermectin at the jail but hasn't released any results.
In a letter to the board, through his attorney, Karas said 254 detainees at the jail received ivermectin. Karas also said procedures had been improved to better inform detainees about the treatments.