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"They said they were vitamins": Inmates in Arkansas jail say they were unknowingly given ivermectin to treat COVID-19

The controversy surrounding ivermectin
The controversy surrounding ivermectin 08:55

An Arkansas doctor under investigation for prescribing an anti-parasite drug called ivermectin to jail detainees with COVID-19, even though federal health officials specifically warn against it, has said that those patients took the drug willingly. But several inmates at the Washington County jail say that is not the case — that they were given the pills with no indication of what they really were.

CBS News spoke with 29-year-old Edrick Floreal-Wooten over a video call from the jail on Friday. After testing positive for COVID-19 in August, he said he and other inmates went to "pill call" and were given several pills with the explanation that it would help them "get better." He said he and others asked repeatedly what the pills were.

"They said they were vitamins, steroids and antibiotics," Floreal-Wooten told CBS News. "We were running fevers, throwing up, diarrhea ... and so we figured that they were here to help us. ... We never knew that they were running experiments on us, giving us ivermectin. We never knew that."

Ivermectin is only approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human use to treat parasites, and in some cases, head lice and rosacea. It is not an anti-viral, and the FDA has repeatedly warned against using it to treat or prevent COVID-19. But misinformation promoting the drug on social media has fueled its use. Large doses of the drug can be "dangerous and can cause serious harm," the agency has said. Overdose symptoms may include diarrhea, dizziness and nausea, among other things. 

Floreal-Wooten said he and the other inmates were not aware that jail nurses were giving them ivermectin until about five days after first receiving the pills. He said inmates can't see what the medications are because pills are pulled out of a drawer that has dozens of bottles. 

The only reason they found out, he said, is because of news reports that Dr. Rob Karas, the jail's physician, was prescribing the drug to detainees and others. 

"And from that point forward ... they finally gave us the consent if we would like to take the pill or not," he said, adding that roughly 20 other inmates then turned down the pills. 

"It was not consensual. They used us as an experiment, like we're livestock," Floreal-Wooten told CBS News. "Just because we wear stripes and we make a few mistakes in life, doesn't make us less of a human. We got families, we got loved ones out there that love us."

Edrick Floreal-Wooten, right, with his wife. Floreal-Wooten says he was given ivermectin without his consent while detained at Washington County jail in Arkansas.  Edrick Floreal-Wooten

Two other inmates provided similar accounts to The Associated Press. One man, William Evans, told the AP he was given ivermectin for two weeks after he tested positive for COVID-19 

"They were pretty much testing us in here is all they were doing, seeing if it would work," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has requested records from the sheriff's office and from Dr. Karas' office related to jail detainees and COVID-19 precautions and care.

"No one — including incarcerated individuals — should be subject to medical experimentation," ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said in a statement. "The detention center's failure to use safe and appropriate treatments for COVID-19 ... illustrates the larger systemic problem of mistreatment of detainees and over incarceration in Arkansas that has persisted — even in the midst of a pandemic." 

Karas previously confirmed to CBS News that he had prescribed the drug, saying in an email that he obtained it from a licensed pharmacist "in dosages and compounds formulated for humans." 

In an interview with CBS affiliate KFSM last week, Karas said jail detainees were "not forced" to take ivermectin and that many refuse several medications, including this one. The county sheriff also said its use by inmates was voluntary, AP reported.

CBS News has reached out to Karas and the Washington County jail for comment about the inmates' claims, but has not yet received a response. 

Karas is now under investigation by the state's medical board.

Floreal-Wooten says he never even saw Dr. Karas before the nurses started giving the drug to him. The only time he says he saw medical care providers was during "pill call" and when nurses would check the COVID-positive inmates' pulse oxidation levels in the morning. 

Floreal-Wooten says he is currently under quarantine with several other inmates after one tested positive for COVID-19 Friday morning. 

Since taking the pills, he says he has had diarrhea and upper abdominal pain. But he says he doesn't want to tell the medical staff because he can't trust them to properly treat him. He said he would rather wait to get medical attention in 42 days, when he should be released. Floreal-Wooten has been in jail since July 17 for a parole violation.

"I'm scared," he said. "If you were so willing to put something in my pills and give me a pill without my acknowledgement, you could do the same thing and be deceptive and put it in my juice, my food. ... I can't trust any of the medical staff. I can't trust any of the guards." 

Floreal-Wooten said he and about 17 other inmates have filed grievances against Dr. Karas, the nurses, the sheriff and the Washington County jail administrator.

The ACLU of Arkansas has written to Washington County Judge Joseph Wood and Washington County Justice of the Peace Butch Pond to demand that they stop allowing ivermectin to be prescribed at the jail, likening its use to "cruel and unusual punishment." 

The ACLU also says it has asked Washington County Sheriff Helder to end the practice, but that it has "fallen on deaf ears." 

The sheriff told the ACLU in a statement earlier this week that he is "not a medical doctor and cannot provide advice or direction on the appropriate dosage or usage of any prescription drug," according to correspondence reviewed by CBS News. 

"It should go without saying but Sheriff Helder's duty [to] protect the jail population and provide appropriate medical care does not hinge on whether or not he is a medical doctor," the ACLU said in its letter to the judge. "It does not take a medical degree to read and understand the FDA recommendations." 

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