Maine physician prescribed discredited COVID-19 treatments, aimed to make ‘spectacle’ of investigation

Mon, 07/31/2023 - 4:45pm

    After they struggled with COVID-19 symptoms for two weeks, Joel Mahoney drove his parents to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, where his mother, Nancy Mahoney, was admitted on Dec. 19, 2021 for complaints of labored breathing, fatigue and a cough. She was treated for COVID pneumonia that required supplemental oxygen.

    She told the hospitalist treating her that a doctor, Ellsworth internist Meryl Nass, had diagnosed her with COVID “over the phone” earlier that month and prescribed a five-day supply of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin.

    The proponents of using the drug to treat COVID have been roundly criticized, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned it should not be used to prevent or treat the virus.

    The hospitalist reported Nass to the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine the same day Nancy Mahoney was hospitalized, according to disciplinary documents, and the board subsequently suspended Nass’ license.

    In the 18 months since, Nass and her disciplinary case have become a cause for anti-vaccination advocates, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and far-right publications. She’s vigorously fighting her suspension, and RFK Jr.’s anti-vaccine advocacy group is paying Nass’ legal fees, she said.

    She appears to welcome the publicity.

    At one point, when Nass informed Joel Mahoney in a text message that the board subpoenaed his mother’s medical records, Nass wrote, “I know some crack attorneys. I certainly was hoping to make a public spectacle of an investigation."

    On Friday, Nass’ adjudicatory hearing wrapped up its sixth full day. The first hearing date was over nine months ago. Closing arguments and board deliberations will be scheduled for a later date.

    The board’s grounds for disciplinary actions — which have been amended three times, with some allegations removed — include 13 violations related to patient care and competence, medical recordkeeping, “truth-telling and misrepresentation” and failure to comply with the board’s complaint notification and subpoenas in a timely manner.

    The violations are based on her care of three patients, including Nancy Mahoney. Each was prescribed ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, to prevent or treat COVID-19. In each instance, disciplinary records say, Nass never met the patients and only conducted care via telehealth, in which, among other allegations, Nass failed to establish a proper physician-patient relationship, and maintain complete medical records and documentation.

    She is also accused of “fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” for allegedly lying to a pharmacist that a prescription for hydroxychloroquine was to treat Lyme disease; the patient was not diagnosed with Lyme disease. Nass told the board in a Dec. 11, 2021, email that she was “forced” to lie “as this was the only way to get a potentially life-saving drug for my patient.” She repeated that she lied in a virtual hearing with state lawmakers days later.

    Despite her displeasure with the length of the proceedings, Nass said following Friday’s hearing that she has succeeded in making her case a “spectacle.”

    Each day of the hearing has been live streamed on the website and YouTube channel of Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine advocacy group chaired by Kennedy, which Nass said has garnered 180,000 viewers on at least one occasion. Kennedy, a longshot candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, has been sharply denounced for spreading anti-vaccine misinformation.

    The Epoch Times, a far-right international media company, made a documentary claiming Nass is “one of many doctors whose medical license is being threatened for deviating from official COVID guidelines.” 

    Earlier this year she appeared on media personality Drew Pinsky’s podcast and YouTube show, “Ask Dr. Drew,” where she claimed the complaints the board received about her “were fabricated by activists using targeted harassment to censor her freedom of speech.”

    The Washington Post included the Nass case in an article last week that analyzed disciplinary records from medical boards in all 50 states. “Across the country, doctors who jeopardized patients’ lives by pushing medical misinformation during the pandemic and its aftermath have faced few repercussions," the Post reported.

    Nass’ practice has alarmed healthcare professionals. For example, Renata Moise, a certified nurse-midwife in Ellsworth, told the board that one of her pregnant patients was taking hydroxychloroquine prescribed by Nass.

    In an email to the board, a copy of which she shared with The Post, Moise wrote: “When Dr. Nass promotes, prescribes, or advises treatments for COVID-19 which are not among the approved or recommended treatments, it hampers our ability here … to promote the public health factors necessary for controlling the pandemic.”

    Nass said Friday that she has treated “hundreds” more patients with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Ivermectin is most commonly used to treat worm infections in humans but also has veterinary applications, primarily for horses. Hydroxychloroquine is similarly an antiparasitic drug, and is typically used for malaria treatment and prevention, and to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, according to the Mayo Clinic.

    The FDA has not approved ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19 and issued a warning against using hydroxychloroquine outside of hospital settings or clinical trials due to serious heart risks.

    Mike Balos, a pastor at Maine Street Church in Brunswick, and Sarah Bishop, a mother of four in Ellsworth and Moise’s patient, said at Friday’s hearing they found Nass’ name in a provider directory on Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance’s website. FLCCCA was founded in the early days of the pandemic and endorses widely discredited “treatment protocols” for COVID.

    Nass’ team called Mahoney, Balos and Bishop, identified as patients 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the disciplinary documents, to testify Friday. Each said they were satisfied with Nass’ care.

    Balos, like Mahoney, sought Nass for an ivermectin prescription to use “prophylactically” and he, too, was hospitalized in December 2021 with severe COVID. According to patient records subpoenaed by the board, Balos was admitted to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick on Dec. 16. He was intubated two days later and was on mechanical ventilation for 13 days. He was discharged Jan. 4.

    Nass said the allegations against her have “no legal justification” and is a “spurious, illegal, unjustified, without-grounds prosecution” to go after her license.

    The medical board did not respond to a request for comment Friday evening.