‘It’s not what we do’: Hospital chief not interested in ivermectin debate with Kansas senator

By: - March 1, 2022 8:33 am

Sen. Mark Steffen appears during a Feb. 8, 2022, hearing of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, has a simple explanation for refusing to debate people who profit from glorifying ivermectin at a “symposium” in Lenexa sponsored by Sen. Mark Steffen.

That’s not what doctors do.

“We don’t try to run out into public forums where cameras are clicking and things like that and do sound bites,” Stites said. “That’s just not who we are. It’s not what we do. It’s what other people do. That’s fine. Go for it. But that’s not who we are.”

Steffen, a Republican and anesthesiologist from Hutchinson who is under investigation for prescribing ivermectin to COVID-19 patients, organized the Early Covid Treatment Symposium along with the anti-vax group Kansans for Health Freedom. The Wednesday event features three out-of-state doctors known for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, and a doctor from an Overland Park wellness clinic that utilizes holistic medicine. Tickets cost $35.

On Monday, Steffen wrote in a post on his personal Facebook page that “very few tickets remain.”

“If you know a doctor willing to debate on behalf of the ‘do nothing’ treatment protocol, let me know,” Steffen wrote. “The propaganda docs seem to be all talk and no action.”

For the past two weeks, Steffen and KSHF have taunted KU Health officials for refusing to debate the merits of ivermectin in the public setting, while accusing the nonprofit academic system of being a “big corporate hospital” that deploys a “go home until you can’t breathe” approach to fighting a virus that has killed nearly 8,000 Kansans.

This criticism ignores the No. 1 tool utilized by medical professionals to prevent severe illness or death from COVID-19 — free, safe and effective vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 70.9% of Kansas adults are fully vaccinated, and 86.5% have received at least one dose.

The KU Health System has held virtual daily briefings on COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, providing insight into the effect the virus has had on hospitals across the state, dissecting the latest data and recommendations from federal and international authorities, and answering questions from news media and the public. The briefings helped fill an information void when the governor’s administration silenced former health secretary Lee Norman last year, elevating the profile of Stites and making him a bigger target for Steffen and anti-vaxxers.

Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, talks about the Early Covid Treatment Symposium during a Feb. 25, 2022, virtual news briefing. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Zoom video)

Stites talked about the planned Lenexa event and COVID-19 treatments in response to a question from Kansas Reflector during Friday’s briefing.

“For the longest time on this program, we’ve said we’re not going to be flapjackers,” Stites said. “We’re not gonna flap our arms and jack with the truth and try to speak wildly about it. Instead, what we’re going to do is try and stick as best we can to the science. And we’ll let you know when we’re talking hard science, we let you know when we think we’re giving you more of our professional opinion.”

In brief, here’s what they know: Peer-reviewed, blind clinical trials routinely show there is no benefit to using ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Paxlovid has demonstrated an 85-90% reduction in hospitalizations. The Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the Pfizer tablets in December to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

“That’s really good, right? That’s like really, really, really good,” Stites said. “Now if you look at the data that has been suggested about ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, the data — it’s just not there. What you have is a lot of personal testimony that says, ‘Gosh, I was feeling poorly, I took ivermectin and then I started feeling better.’ ”

In a Feb. 23 email promoting the symposium to its followers, KSHF claimed there was no guidance about early treatment for COVID-19. Frustrated doctors, the organization said, “are ready to take matters into their own hands.”

Hospital systems “continue to turn a deaf ear to doctors who are successfully treating patients early,” the email said. “This is exactly what is happening right here in Kansas. Doctors at KU Med, for instance, have been invited to the Early Treatment Symposium; however, they have declined. We should all be asking: WHY?”

Stites said the doctors in the KU Health System prefer to hold long discussions in the form of journal club. They review articles, critique them and go to medical conferences with top researchers in their specialized field, such as infectious disease.

“We’re not politicians,” Stites said. “And I don’t mean in a disparaging fashion. That’s another type of job, and I’m not in that job. This is my job. And I’m going to try, and I think I need, to do my job. And God bless the people and Godspeed, the folks who want to be in the political world. I think that’s a really hard job. …

“When we meet and talk with our patients, we’re talking about the science part of it. So people want to get together and talk about it, Godspeed. Go for it. It’s just not who we are.”

Stites said he wanted to “clear up some other misinformation.”

“I don’t get any money from drug companies,” Stites said. “I don’t do any of that. When I give you these opinions, these are not out of financial interests. And if anybody’s even more concerned, just know that when you practice as a physician, you can’t get reimbursed because the health system makes more money. That’s illegal. People go to jail for that. And so, the end of the day, we’re just trying to recommend to you what we think is the best thing.”

Steffen, who announced in a committee hearing that he is under investigation by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, has promoted legislation that would clear himself and any other doctor of any wrongdoing for prescribing drugs like ivermectin for off-label use in the treatment of COVID-19. His proposal also would require pharmacists to fulfill such prescriptions.

Steffen previously called on Stites to debate him in a public forum in Hays. In recent weeks, he has promoted the Lenexa event in a series of posts on his personal Facebook page.

“Game on!” he wrote on Feb. 18. “The Early Covid Treament [sic] Symposium is officially on. It will be the nations [sic] biggest names in generic early treatment debating the KU Medical Center ‘go home until you can’t breathe’ doctors (if they show up). We will have a great symposium with or without them.”

His posts were met with ridicule in the comments section, where critics linked to reports about a new poll that showed most Kansans support wellness vaccines and ivermectin failing in another clinical trial.

“KU docs will be saving lives during your snake oil show,” Kathy Cook wrote.

“KU has better things to do. They’re out there helping people, you’re running a circus,” Antonio Spaghettarelli wrote.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.