Pictured: A person checks their “pulse-ox” – oxygen saturation levels in their blood – with an oximeter.
by Kimberly Rivers
Last week we ran a story about local and national efforts to increase the support for research into early COVID-19 treatment protocols. We continue our coverage this week.
The coronavirus has changed many aspects of how people around the world live. It’s impacted work, family visits, education, travel, and our view of healthcare. Some who test positive don’t want to take the “wait and see” approach. They want to act.
As a result, many people are sharing information and stories of people with COVID-19 that received early treatment outside of the hospital. The treatments are sometimes off-label, so doctors using them have gone a bit rogue.
Dr. Sabine Hazan is hoping to transform these treatments from rogue to standard.
Hazan, a Ventura-based gastroenterologist and founder of Ventura Clinical Trials and Progenabiome, is testing and using treatment protocols for COVID-19 within five or six days of the onset of symptoms. She closely monitors the status of her patients, who are being treated at home, and every single one of them has remained out of the hospital.
She is not trying to buck the system. In fact, she says Food and Drug Administraion (FDA) approval of the protocols is key to ensuring this virus is stopped. Thus, she has three active FDA trials looking at the treatment protocols.
FDA approval is vital for doctors to feel comfortable using these protocols on a wider scale. And, she adds, a “cheap” option is needed to ensure all bases are covered as not everyone will be fully protected by the vaccine.
”I don’t have another explanation”
For Thanksgiving 2020 the Storment family of Turloch, California, shared a family meal together. Within a few days all but one member of the family contracted COVID-19.
Richard Storment, 62, was the only one who became seriously ill.
“I did always think that if I got it, I would die, because of pre-existing conditions.” He spoke with the Ventura County Reporter on Feb. 15 from a dialysis clinic where he was receiving one of three required treatments he gets each week due to kidney failure. “My body has pretty much fallen apart.”
He’s had multiple heart attacks, an aortic aneurysm, bladder cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Storment’s medical history checks every box putting him in the highest risk category for death from COVID-19.
The weekend after Thanksgiving, he started running a fever. He called the dialysis clinic Monday morning. “They have strict guidelines” for those who get COVID-19 but still require their dialysis treatment. “I informed them that I was running a fever and was pretty sure that it was COVID.”
There was a designated clinic being used solely for those with COVID. Storment went in for his treatment on Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. and tested positive that evening.
He called his daughter, who lives in San Luis Obispo. “She found [Dr. Hazan]. She hooked us up with that. With all of my existing conditions, they were afraid that I would not make it.”
He described having COVID-19 as “a horrible experience . . . That night after dialysis my fever shot up to 105.”
Storment’s wife didn’t experience strong symptoms and was able to care for him, putting ice packs on him to bring his temperature down. “At that point, it was full-blown attacking me. I could hardly stand up. I was falling down. So I just stayed in bed.”
He recalls that it took a few days to start the treatment prescribed by Hazan.
“She prescribed these off-the-grid medications that I couldn’t get elsewhere,” said Storment. His daughter came to take care of him and found a local pharmacist willing to fill the prescriptions written by Hazan.
Hazan confirmed that she prescribed him a regimen of Ivermectin, Doxycycline and high doses of Vitamins C and D and zinc. She said that Storment’s oxygen levels got as low as 77% (normal is 95-100%). Storment says his levels are always a bit reduced due to his COPD. The day he spoke with the VCReporter they were at 97%. “That’s pretty good for me.”
“When I started it, I immediately started to get better. I can’t tell you if it was a miracle drug, but I felt like it was killing this virus,” recalls Storment. “I definitely credit [the medicines] for me still being alive. I just don’t have any other explanation.”
He experienced a few “rough nights, gasping for breath. My daughter was pounding on my back to get me to catch my breath. Then the following week it got to where I could walk a little bit.”
Storment tested negative on Dec. 17, but continued to need oxygen and experience shortness of breath for another three to four weeks.
“I definitely recommend [the treatment], especially if they have preexisting conditions . . . If it hits you hard at all, this may be the only thing that will save your life. I’m really blessed that I was able to hook up with [Hazan] . . . I hope that I can help someone else by doing this interview.”
“A step in the right direction”
Names have been changed in this section at the family’s request.
Steve and Diane Johnson live in the Bay Area and both tested positive for COVID in early January. Steve is 86 and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about a year and a half ago. He had surgery for colon cancer in February 2020 and had a heart valve replacement prior to that. He was diagnosed in his 50s with arthritis and treated with prednisone for years. He’s had pneumonia a few times, but Diane, 69, said that the pneumonia vaccine helped curb recurrences.
Diane and daughter Jennifer spoke with the Ventura County Reporter on Feb. 15.
“We had symptoms on Jan. 4,” said Diane. “And cold-like symptoms. Basically a cough. Neither one of us ran a fever. Two days went by, both coughs got worse.”
“She’s an optimist by nature,” said Jennifer. “I talked to her multiple times. I was scared, I heard them both hacking all the time. She was hacking on the phone telling me she thinks it’s allergies. I hear my dad in the background like he’s coughing up a lung. She’s so worried about him, she didn’t pay attention to herself. They were both equally sick with the lung part, and they were getting worse.”
“We got COVID tests to rule it out,” Diane said, “We had not been exposed to anyone that had COVID, that we knew of.” She said “the test came back two days later, on Friday, the 8th. We were both positive. I panicked. When I got the message I cried for half an hour from the fear. I had to fight the fear. I’m not going to sit back and see if it gets worse, we didn’t have that luxury.”
She then contacted Steve’s neurologist. “She said you gotta do something about this, fast.” At that point they were at five days post the onset of symptoms. The neurologist introduced Diane to Hazan through a text.
“We got all the paperwork in so she could write the prescriptions. We both got Ivermectin,” Diane said. The local pharmacy had enough for the Johnsons to start the medicine and worked with them, even staying open beyond normal business hours that day so they could take the first dose. “He’s known us, and has been filling our prescriptions for years.”
“Within 24 hours we noticed less coughing,” Diane recalled. “We were still exhausted and sick.” One day after starting Ivermectin, Steve felt well enough to walk, although he was still sleeping most of the day. Diane felt she improved more quickly.
Hazan started Steve on hydroxychloroquine. During the treatment Steve’s blood pressure, oxygen saturation and temperature were monitored. Hazan checked on both of them about three times a day. “She was amazing. One night I was worried about his oxygen levels. He got worse at night. She FacetTimed with him so she could see him.” But Diane said his levels never got below 90 and stayed around 92 or 93.
“We knew about the controversy with hydroxychloroquine. When Trump talked about it, then it went the opposite way,” said Diane. “We knew it was harmless for [Steve] to take, he had been on it for years to treat his arthritis.” She also explained that he had been taken off the medicine when he no longer had active symptoms.
She read about Ivermectin online. “It doesn’t look like a harmful drug. It’s more harmful if he ends up in the hospital intubated.” At his age, the risks of him dying from COVID were very real. But following Hazan’s protocol, “every day it was a step in the right direction.”
“We learn a lot more as the virus changes,” Diane said. “We heard you don’t get tested again because you’ll stay positive for several months. I’ve had nurses tell me that. But [Steve] was tested 13 days after testing positive. It came back negative. We’ve both tested positive for the antibodies. We did these tests for Hazan’s research. I give credit to [Ivermectin], that probably killed the virus.”
Diane said she shares information about their experience if people ask. “I’m so thankful that there are doctors out there doing research.”
“It is really scary if you get that diagnosis and the biggest problem is doctors are not doing anything about it,” daughter Jennifer said. “They’re just saying take Tylenol and call if things get worse. Early intervention helps people stay alive, but there aren’t enough doctors given the authorization to prescribe [anything] that actually works. So many people don’t need to die if they were just given this information.”
Diane said her experience with the treatment and Hazan, “gives me faith in people again, faith in medicine again.”
“Within two minutes she called.”
Real names are being kept confidential due to FDA clinical trial requirements.
Juan Ramirez of Oxnard was 62 when he contracted COVID-19. His daughter, Stacey Stephens, spoke to the VCReporter on his 63rd birthday, Feb. 16, about their experience being treated at home.
“He didn’t fall into the category of being able to get the vaccine,” said Stephens. “This gave us big concerns because of his heart issues.” When he tested positive earlier this month, she knew he was high risk.
Ramirez has had an aortic valve replacement, and his doctor has recommended another one. He has atrial fibrillation and an atrial flutter and takes a blood thinner. He has had a few ablations to help stabilize heart arrhythmia.
Stephens attended an event for work in late January. “It was super small. I wore a face shield, mask with a filter and gloves. Three days after the event I was called and told I was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID.” She got tested that night and got her positive result the next day on Jan. 27.
“I started feeling symptoms that night.” She and her 3-year-old daughter live with her mom, dad and brother. They all went to get tested. Results were all negative on Jan. 19. She and her daughter went into quarantine at a hotel for nearly a week.
“On Feb. 2 in the morning I get a call from my dad to tell me he started to feel symptoms.” He was experiencing a sore throat, stuffy and runny nose. He was tested with a mouth swab and it came back positive. They got the results on Feb. 2 at about 9:30 p.m.
“The very first thing I did when I received the email with his results was to call and tell my dad. The very next thing, I called his cardiologist.” Stephens often attends doctor visits with her father. Spanish is his primary language and while he speaks and understands English she said “sometimes things get lost in translation.” His doctors know her.
“We are very strong believers in God and it was by the grace of God that night that out of his entire cardiology group, he was the doctor on call.”
Ramirez’s doctor, Dr. Alon J. Steinberg, chief of medicine and cardiology at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, also is Hazan’s husband.
“He returned my call immediately. He knows us so well, he’s been treating my dad for over 15 years, maybe 20 years. When he heard my voice he knew exactly who I was. I told him ‘My dad just tested positive. I don’t know what to do.’”
Steinberg told her to have Ramirez start taking Vitamins C and D and zinc. “But I asked him, ‘is there anything else that we can do for him?’ . . . He told me his wife, who is a doctor, is conducting a trial and treating patients for COVID.’ I asked him if he thought my dad was eligible. He said ‘yes, let me see if she can call you back.’”
“I thought maybe I’d hear from her the next day,” recalled Stephens. “Within two minutes she called.”
Stephens said it all happened very quickly. She got the email confirmation of the positive test at 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 2, she called Steinberg, and Hazan called her immediately. That night they filled out the release and consent forms for the blind clinical trial involving hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin with Vitamins C and D and Zinc. Hazan explained that patients don’t know if they’re receiving the placebo with just the vitamins or the medications with vitamins. Both Stephens and her dad started the trial the next day.
At 8 a.m. on Feb. 3, the materials and medicine was ready for pick up at Ventura Clinical Trials. Her brother, who still tested negative, went to pick them up.
Ramirez quarantined in his bedroom (food was placed at his door). He and Stephens provided stool samples. They took the vitamin “cocktail” and pills (that were either a placebo or the medication) at designated times throughout the course of the 10-day trial. During those ten days they journaled about their symptoms and any changes. There was constant monitoring of blood oxygen saturation, temperature, blood pressure and heart rhythm with a special monitor connected to Hazan’s phone so she gets a notification of anything abnormal. All trial participants wear a continuous heart rate monitor on their arm at all times. It constantly sends information to Hazan and her team so they can monitor patients.
Every three days Hazan or her assistant would check in with them. They were watching the oxygen levels particularly closely. Ramirez had constant oxygen levels around 95 — normal for him.
On the ninth day of the trial Stephens FaceTimed her father. “I asked him ‘how are you feeling?’ and he told me he had a really bad headache, his pulse ox [oxygen] went down, his cough was really bad.” He also had a fever that day and Stephens notified Hazan’s team.
Hazan got in touch with her and indicated that his body wasn’t responding and she wanted to prescribe Ivermectin. This meant that Hazan would now be treating Rodriguez as a primary care provider, and technically he was no longer in the clinical trial. Since he was not improving, Hazan did not want to chance that he was getting a placebo.
Ramirez immediately started taking six pills of Ivermectin a day for three days, starting that night, and Hazan instructed him to cease taking the trial medication. That night he had cold sweats, diarrhea and shivers.
Stephens again contacted Hazan — who surprisingly answered, “That’s great!” Hazan told her “that is the exact reaction we wanted from his body” because it meant the medicine was working.
After a few more nights like the first, he started feeling better and was breathing fine. When he again experienced headaches after taking the Ivermectin, Hazan instructed him to start taking it with fatty food, to increase absorption.
“The next day after that he told me ‘Mi hija I’m fine.”
“That’s where we’ve been,” his daughter says. “Yesterday he had a great day.” He tells his daughter, “it finally feels like it’s really his body.”
Ramirez’s file is still blind in the clinical trial, and Hazan won’t know if he was receiving the placebo or the actual medicines (hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin) until her trial concludes.
Stephens hopes the Latino community will get this information. “With this trial we are fighting for these medications to fight the virus at home. What’s special to us is that it’s not treating your symptoms, it’s treating you to fight the virus that’s in your body.” She doubts her father could have received treatment like this in the hospital. “If you can’t breath well the first thing is they connect you to oxygen. That’s when you hear the stories of patients spiraling down, the domino effect within their bodies…I 1,000% believe this [treatment] kept him from being hospitalized. He got treated from the comfort of his own home.”
To inquire about active clinical trials in Ventura visit: https://www.venturaclinicaltrials.com
For information on all active clinical trials visit: www.clinicaltrials.gov