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Baker, lawmakers call for health official’s removal

Dr. Lorrin Pang has come under fire for backing certain drugs to treat COVID-19

Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang oversees a vaccination program for frontline health care workers at the University of Hawaii Maui College on Dec. 26. State lawmakers are calling for Pang’s removal over his connection to a group that state officials say is spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Pang emphasized Thursday that he is not anti-vaccine and co-founded the group in hopes of generating dialogue. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Maui state Sen. Roz Baker and other state leadership are calling for the removal of Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang over what Baker described as “alarming and outrageous statements to the press” in support of controversial treatments for COVID-19.

“He has violated the very oath that he should have taken when he got his degree,” Baker said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. “He is definitely violating the trust of everyone who might think that because he is the district health officer of Maui that he knows what he’s talking about.”

Baker, House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate President Ronald Kouchi and the chairmen of both chambers’ health committees sent a letter to Gov. David Ige on Thursday asking him to remove Pang from his position. Baker told fellow senators on Thursday that she’d also asked the Hawaii Medical Board to decide whether to revoke Pang’s license.

“It’s serious, Mr. President and colleagues, and I appreciate the support that you have shown me in trying to make sure that we have the most effective and efficacious treatment that our people need and deserve,” Baker said. “But they don’t need to be treated by quacks.”

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday reported that Pang is the co-founder of a group called the Pono Coalition for Informed Consent, which says on its website that it “advocates for true informed consent before taking the experimental COVID-19 vaccines, before authorizing for another, or before administering.”

West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker asks a question during a Hawaii Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting at the University of Hawaii Maui College in August 2019. Baker on Thursday called for the removal of Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang over his support for the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to treat COVID-19, which federal agencies have advised against.

The newspaper reported that Pang supports the use of hydroxychloroquine, an arthritis medication also used to prevent malaria, and ivermectin, a drug used to remove parasites in animals, for treating COVID-19 cases, saying that “it’s a matter of timing. You give the wrong thing at the wrong time, it is very dangerous.”

Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have warned against using the drugs for COVID-19, and the state Department of Health on Wednesday also spoke soundly against it.

“We listen to all sides in public health. We believe in dialogue. But in this case, the science is clear,” Health Director Dr. Libby Char said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “More than 350 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history. The vaccine will protect you against severe illness, hospitalization and death.”

Char said the coalition “is spreading misinformation about these lifesaving vaccines” and about the severity of the disease.

“I want to be clear — hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin should not be used to treat COVID-19,” Char said. “Taking unprescribed large doses of ivermectin or doses intended for animals can cause serious harm.”

Pang emphasized that he has never been against vaccines and has helped lead the charge locally to vaccinate residents.

“Few are more pro-vaccine than I, not just words, but actions,” he said in a letter to media outlets on Thursday. “I have presented written arguments supporting mandates on international ethical grounds to the public, UH-Maui, as well as to the Pono Coalition. I am not and have never been anti-vaccine. Not only am I and my family vaccinated but I have overseen the administration of tens of thousands of shots on Maui.”

Pang said the Pono Coalition was formed as a way to encourage public dialogue.

“To clarify, it was created so that 2 sides could have a public forum for conversation,” the doctor said. “My side represented medical science and informed consent (for getting a vaccine, testing, other interventions) and the other side of the group represented by Dr. (Merlyn) Travis, a spectrum of concerns and arguments. We agreed to listen to each other in a civil way, asking those with more inflammatory conduct to take a back seat.”

He also clarified his stance on both drugs, saying he agreed with the FDA that both could prove harmful.

“Standard therapies (in this case, oxygen, steroids, monoclonal antibodies) should be used for COVID,” Pang said. “Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are medications approved for other diseases. There are clinical trials evaluating the use of these medications for COVID. I agree with the FDA that hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin could of course prove harmful.”

Bruce Douglas, director of community outreach for the Pono Coalition who worked with Pang on Maui County’s GMO moratorium ballot initiative in 2014, said that Pang shouldn’t be punished for his comments and affiliation with the group as a private citizen.

“He stood as a private citizen as we stood up to Monsanto’s pesticides and GMO crops here on Maui, and he can stand as a private citizen to say what he believes separate from a public health officer,” Douglas said. “So to think that was tolerated for the GMO moratorium but not tolerated for COVID is irrational.”

Douglas, who said he and his wife recently came down with the virus and were prescribed ivermectin by a doctor, said that Pang is trying to create dialogue on early COVID-19 treatments.

“We have to be open to discuss these things. If we’re not open to discuss this and talk about it as rational people and disagree and look at teach other’s information, then we’re not really doing science any justice,” Douglas said. “Science is looking at both sides, looking at all the evidence objectively without political agendas. So if some doctors say these medicines can heal we have to be willing to discuss that in a rational way and have a collective forum to discuss it. What Dr. Pang is looking at is opening up that discussion so we don’t have a censored situation.”

Legislative leaders, however, said Pang’s actions as a private citizen undermine his public position. With hospitals reaching capacity and Hawaii short on medical staff, “it is critical that our public health care leaders provide responsible and accurate public health information,” the lawmakers said in the letter to Ige.

“As the lead public health official for the Maui district, we believe that Dr. Pang’s role with the Pono Coalition compromises his position as the Department of Health, Maui District Health Officer. His involvement and endorsement of PCIC directly conflicts with the guidance of the Department of Health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and generally accepted standards of medical practice,” they said.

“Dr. Pang has undermined the state’s critical public health message and public trust.”

When asked how he planned to respond to lawmakers’ request on Thursday, Ige said he could not comment on personnel matters, but agreed that the coalition was “potentially harming the health and safety of our community” by spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines.

“Look at the data. The vaccine is saving lives and protecting our residents from severe illness and hospitalization,” Ige said. “Furthermore, large doses of unprescribed medication meant for animals may cause serious harm. We must look at the science and listen to credible sources such as the Department of Health and the CDC for important information. Get vaccinated and do your part to protect your families and communities from this relentless virus.”

Mayor Michael Victorino, who has often invited Pang to be a guest speaker at his news conferences, also condemned the use of the drugs to treat COVID-19 but did not take a stance on Pang’s removal, saying it was “a personnel decision to be made by Governor Ige and Hawaii Health Director Dr. Libby Char.”

“Recent media coverage has likely undermined the public’s trust in Dr. Pang and trust is essential for any health official to be effective,” Victorino said Thursday. “This is especially true during this pivotal fight against the delta variant. The people of Maui County and the State of Hawaii deserve sound medical guidance based upon the best available scientific evidence.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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