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The Oklahoma Ivermectin Overdose Controversy

Claim

A Rolling Stone story about Oklahoma ivermectin overdoses was a "hoax," was "debunked," and the "media fell for it."

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Reporting

A viral September 5 2021 tweet thread “debunking” a series of stories about ivermectin use and hospitals shows that disinformation and the way it is delivered is mutating.

Republican public relations strategist and freelance writer Drew Holden’s thread began by addressing a Rolling Stone piece about Oklahoma ivermectin overdoses, its claims quickly solidifying into an article of faith across social media:

Drew Holden’s Tweets About the Rolling Stone Ivermectin Article

Holden started with a seemingly established premise — that Rolling Stone had “entirely invented” a story about Oklahoma ivermectin overdoses, and that this was widespread, accepted knowledge. Clever people knew the Rolling Stone story was “made up, entirely invented,” but a bunch of dummies “took the bait” (and Holden had “the screenshots.”)

(Holden also misspelled “ivermectin” as “invermectin.”)

Among details missing from Holden’s first tweet were:

  • A link to “the Rolling Stone invermectin [sic] article”;
  • Details about the article in question;
  • Its name, author, or date of publication;
  • Whether it was disproved, and;
  • By whom it was disproved.

Holden’s sleight of hand continued in the thread’s second tweet:

Alongside two screenshots (one of a tweet by @RollingStone, and one of a purported press release from NHS Sequoyah) Holden said:

First, for context, here’s the original piece from @RollingStone and the follow up from the actual hospital saying the story was BS and that the one (one!) person the story quotes doesn’t work at that hospital anymore (and hasn’t in months).

Not only did Holden not link to the “original piece” so readers could review its claims, he also didn’t screenshot the article itself. His first screenshot was of a tweet which presumably linked to the original article, and his second tweet was of a statement.

That statement did not, on the surface, in any way “debunk” or disprove the screenshot; Holden had yet to describe the initial article. Notably, Rolling Stone‘s tweet referenced “Oklahoma hospitals,” and the second screenshot was from a hospital clarifying the employment status of a Dr. Jason McElyea and adding that their single facility had not treated any patients for ivermectin overdoses.

The remaining tweets in Holden’s thread were individual callouts, and Holden primarily tagged “a certain variety of Twitter bluecheck”; Holden himself was a certain variety of “Twitter bluecheck.” After several individuals were tagged to target them with mocking tweets, Holden added:

It should go without saying, but inventing a narrative out of thin air simply because it confirms your priors is not going to help rebuild trust in the media.

It would’ve taken a single phone call to shoot this story down.

Why didn’t that happen?

And the same people who purport to be concerned about misinformation and how it spreads on platforms like Twitter will surely be silent on this.

Where’s the nashing of teeth from the “disinformation” reporters? Where are the Twitter content warnings? Where’s the outrage?

You won’t hear any. Because this is the acceptable type of political lie.

And none of these people or outlets will learn anything. They’ll keep doing this.

Because they care more about scoring cheap dunks on their opponents than getting the truth.

Holden’s thread and comments in summary alluded to a massive journalistic misstep on the part of Rolling Stone, but it was something of a paradox. Holden criticized a story without addressing its content — even as he lectured Twitter users for not doing sufficient due diligence.

Google Trends data demonstrated “Breakout” popularity for the week ending September 10 2021 for the following searches: “ivermectin hoax,” Lie – Topic,” “Oklahoma ivermectin,” “the great ivermectin deworming hoax,” “ivermectin overdose hoax,” “ivermectin overdose,” and “Rolling Stone ivermectin.”

Finding the Rolling Stone Ivermectin Article, and What it Initially Reported

Holden’s thread was virally popular, and we attempted to answer his plea — as disinformation journalists, to “shoot this story down.”

First we had to find it, and Holden was no help. Neither was Google; a search for “Rolling Stone ivermectin” led primarily to pieces reiterating Holden’s unsupported assertions:

rolling stone ivermectin

We found an archived copy of a September 3 2021 Rolling Stone article by Peter Wade, headlined, “Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says.” A subheading pointed at a claim affecting more than one facility in a regional health system:

“The ERs are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they can get definitive care and be treated,” Dr. Jason McElyea said[.]

The article’s first five paragraphs were apparently derived from a KFOR report in which McElyea was quoted. For clarity, we’ve applied boldface to every direct quote attributed to McElyea:

The rise in people using ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug usually reserved for deworming horses or livestock, as a treatment or preventative for Covid-19 has emergency rooms “so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting” access to health facilities, an emergency room doctor in Oklahoma said.

This week [of September 3 2021], Dr. Jason McElyea told KFOR the overdoses are causing backlogs in rural hospitals, leaving both beds and ambulance services scarce.

“The ERs are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they can get definitive care and be treated,” McElyea said.

“All of their ambulances are stuck at the hospital waiting for a bed to open so they can take the patient in and they don’t have any, that’s it,” said McElyea. “If there’s no ambulance to take the call, there’s no ambulance to come to the call.”

People getting sick from ivermectin — especially as some people take a formulation of the drug used in livestock — has become so frequent that [in August/September 2021] the Food and Drug Administration released a statement imploring Americans to stay away from the drug that has not been approved to treat or prevent Covid-19. “You are not a horse. You are not a cow,” the agency said while linking to an explainer about the dangers of ingesting ivermectin designed for livestock.

In the excerpt above, Wade first quoted McElyea saying that emergency rooms were “backed up,” affecting trauma cases, like gunshots. After interspersing McElyea’s quotes with paraphrasing, Wade reported the Food and Drug Administration’s statements about Americans using ivermectin formulated for livestock.

The piece was brief, and Wade circled back to McElyea at the end of the article:

As people take the drug, McElyea said patients have arrived at hospitals with negative reactions like nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, and cramping — or even loss of sight.

“The scariest one that I’ve heard of and seen is people coming in with vision loss,” the doctor said.

[…]

“There’s a reason you have to have a doctor to get a prescription for this stuff because it can be dangerous,” McElyea said.

Actual Quotes by McElyea in Rolling Stone

Now we’ll remove comments not directly attributed to McElyea, to get a better picture of how Wade quoted him in the Rolling Stone ivermectin piece:

[Oklahoma emergency rooms are] “so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting” [treated in a timely fashion].

“The ERs are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they can get definitive care and be treated…”

“All of their ambulances are stuck at the hospital waiting for a bed to open so they can take the patient in and they don’t have any, that’s it …If there’s no ambulance to take the call, there’s no ambulance to come to the call.

“The scariest [incident] that I’ve heard of and seen is people coming in with vision loss …

“There’s a reason you have to have a doctor to get a prescription for this stuff because it can be dangerous”[.]

Reducing the article’s paraphrasing to quotes only indicated that McElyea did address ivermectin usage and its dangers. Moreover, McElyea described overwhelmed emergency services in Oklahoma — but in terms that could have been read as either general or specific.

On September 5 2021, Rolling Stone changed the title of the article from “Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says” to “One Hospital Denies Oklahoma Doctor’s Story of Ivermectin Overdoses Causing ER Delays for Gunshot Victims.” An Editor’s Note was appended, along with an update.

KFOR’s Source Article

Once again, we started with an archived copy, due to a targeted outcry against the source material.

On September 2 2021, KFOR published “Patients overdosing on ivermectin backing up rural Oklahoma hospitals, ambulances,” which began:

A rural Oklahoma doctor said patients who are taking the horse de-wormer medication, ivermectin, to fight COVID-19 are causing emergency room and ambulance back ups.

“There’s a reason you have to have a doctor to get a prescription for this stuff, because it can be dangerous,” said Dr. Jason McElyea.

Dr. McElyea said patients are packing his eastern and southeastern Oklahoma hospitals after taking ivermectin doses meant for a full-sized horse, because they believed false claims the horse de-wormer could fight COVID-19.

“The ERs are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they can get definitive care and be treated,” he said.

Note that McElyea addressed hospitals (plural, not singular; many health care professionals travel from facility to facility for various reasons), and that he explained that the issue was dosing intended for livestock, not humans. McElyea did say ERs were backed up, but that could have been in the context of pandemic surges; reasonably, his statements could be interpreted as saying that livestock doses of ivermectin were dangerous, and that emergency rooms were already overrun.

An interesting piece of context for McElyea’s comments appeared later in the KFOR report — that rural Oklahoma residents were not “afraid” of ivermectin:

The doctor said many of his patients aren’t afraid of ivermectin. Many of them have used it on their livestock.

“Growing up in a small town, rural area, we’ve all accidentally been exposed to ivermectin at some time. So, it’s something people are familiar with. Because of those accidental sticks, when trying to inoculate cattle, they’re less afraid of it,” he said.

In short, the piece was selectively quoted by Wade for Rolling Stone, but not misleadingly so. Like Rolling Stone, KFOR appended an editor’s note to the original article — but that particular (and less visible) information was extremely relevant to the reductive claim the story was a “hoax.”

Holden never mentioned this clarification in his “thread” about the “entirely made up” story, but it was perhaps the most informative part of the entire ivermectin article controversy:

Editor’s note: Since this story was published, it has garnered national attention. Our material was gathered from two events. On August 31st [2021], the “Healthier Oklahoma Coalition” held a news conference with six doctors speaking to the media. One of those physicians, Dr. Jason McElyea, spoke about health care facilities being “backed up” with patients who were suffering from complications after taking Ivermectin. The next day, Dr. McElyea conducted a one-on-one interview with KFOR, repeating the information about facilities being “backed up”. At no point was Dr. McElyea referring to every hospital in the state of Oklahoma, and our reporting did not make that claim.

Representatives from two different Oklahoma healthcare organizations confirmed to KFOR their facilities are experiencing a sudden increase in the number of patients suffering negative side effects as a result of over-using Ivermectin. One of the healthcare groups, which confirmed the increase, is Integris Health Systems. They’ve since told us they prefer the term “congested” as opposed to “backed up”, to describe the current situation.

KFOR clarified quite a lot, including that:

  • KFOR’s reporting was predicated on “two events”;
  • One was an August 31 2021 news conference during which six doctors addressed the media;
  • McElyea was one of the six, and he said “facilities” were “backed up” due to incorrect ivermectin usage;
  • McElyea spoke to KFOR on September 1 2021, again stating facilities were “backed up” due to human usage of ivermectin in Oklahoma;
  • McElyea did not reference “every hospital,” and KFOR did not make that claim;
  • Two separate Oklahoma healthcare systems affirmed to KFOR that “their facilities are experiencing a sudden increase” in what amounted to a lot of words for “ivermectin overdoses,” and;
  • Semantically, the healthcare systems — while not disputing the circumstance — preferred the phrasing “congested” to “backed up.”

To recap a third time, KFOR reported on “two events,” and McElyea told the outlet that Oklahoma’s rural residents were familiar with and unafraid of ivermectin; neither McElyea nor KFOR claimed that all Oklahoma hospitals were overrun with ivermectin overdoses. After Holden’s “debunking” thread, two regional health systems in Oklahoma told KFOR they were “experiencing a sudden increase in the number of patients suffering negative side effects as a result of over-using Ivermectin.”

Finally, the two Oklahoma health systems preferred news outlets used “congested” in lieu of “backed up.” (Arguably, they have identical meanings.)

Somehow, the unearned authority in the language of Holden’s tweets had not only disappeared both original articles from their URLs — it also drowned out confirmation that Oklahoma’s hospitals were (at least in part) “experiencing a sudden increase in the number of patients suffering negative side effects as a result of over-using Ivermectin.”

Separately, Oklahoma’s KOTV covered the local controversy turned national flap on September 6 2021, reporting in part:

“As the story ran, it sounded like all of Oklahoma hospitals were filled with people who have overdosed on ivermectin and that’s not the case,” McElyea said. “The cases we are seeing, people who are overdosing on ivermectin, they are taking full strength cattle doses and coming in and that is something that could be avoided.”

INEGRIS Hospital said in a statement McElyea is an employee of an agency that staffs emergency departments throughout the United States including several emergency departments in rural Oklahoma.

“What we can confirm is that we have seen a handful of ivermectin patients in our emergency rooms, to include INTEGRIS Grove Hospital. And while our hospitals are not filled with people who have taken ivermectin, such patients are adding to the congestion already caused by COVID-19 and other emergencies,” the hospital group said.

The Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information said they received 12 ivermectin-related calls last month.

The vast majority of the medical community remains outspoken against the animal grade drug being used to treat COVID-19 in humans.

KOTV’s coverage included a revelatory element, noting that the statement seen in Holden’s second tweet served to obfuscate the story further. Instead of addressing whether emergency services were overrun, the hospital simply made it sound as if McElyea was not in a position to know — which was obviously false:

At least one of the hospitals McElyea worked with distanced themselves from the viral stories over the weekend.

Northeastern Health System Sequoyah said, “Dr. Mcelyea has not worked at our Sallisaw location in over two months, NHS Sequoyah has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin.”

Summary of a Non-Debunking

A September 5 2021 tweet about the Rolling Stone ivermectin article by Drew Holden claimed “the story about rural hospitals so flooded with ODs that they couldn’t treat other patients was made up, entirely invented,” an adept bit of misdirection starting with the notion that the “story” was already shown to be “made up, entirely invented.” In a second tweet, Holden contrasted a screenshot of @RollingStone’s tweet when the article was published with an unrelated statement from a single hospital. Nothing in the thread indicated the claim was disproved, but the rush to answer to the viral call to action buried the original claims — leaving behind primarily a very loud claim that Rolling Stone had published a hoax about ivermectin in Oklahoma. Credible information was buried or overwritten, but archived copies indicated that Holden’s claims were misleading and not substantive in nature.