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Fact-checking the misinformation about Oklahoma hospitals and ivermectin

Washington (CNN) A story went viral last week about Oklahoma hospitals and ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug some Americans are taking to treat Covid-19 even though it is not approved or proven for that purpose.

It was a poor piece of journalism -- inadequate in its reporting, inaccurate in its depiction of what was happening in Oklahoma. The story, which was first published by a local news outlet, baselessly suggested that overdoses among people taking ivermectin to fight Covid-19 were a primary factor in filling up hospitals in the state.

There was no evidence for this -- and the story didn't even demonstrate that its one and only named source had claimed it was true. But the flawed story was widely shared anyway, aggregated by big media outlets and amplified on social media by liberals eager to demonstrate that right-wingers had gone off the deep end in their growing fondness for ivermectin.

And that wasn't the end of the mess. Also based on insufficient evidence, some conservatives soon baselessly jumped to the conclusion that the doctor was a liar who had made the whole thing up. That, too, was not the truth.

Here's a step-by-step breakdown of what did go wrong here.

1) A local news outlet hyped the doctor's quotes, didn't provide context

Ivermectin has traditionally been used for anti-parasitic purposes by both animals and humans. It has grown in popularity as a Covid-19 treatment this year, in part because right-wing media outlets have promoted it for that purpose. But government health authorities have warned that taking ivermectin can cause severe harm, especially when consumed in forms or quantities meant for animals, and that there is not proof it is effective against Covid-19.

The controversy over the Oklahoma story began with an article published last Wednesday by KFOR, an Oklahoma television station. That article quoted just one person: Dr. Jason McElyea, an emergency room physician who works with different hospitals in southern and eastern Oklahoma.

The article strongly suggested that McElyea had claimed that the use of ivermectin was a primary cause, maybe the single primary cause, of hospital congestion in Oklahoma. Other than ivermectin use, the story did not cite a single additional reason why hospitals could be crowded.

But there's no evidence, even in the additional interview footage KFOR released after the controversy erupted, that McElyea himself pinned so much blame on ivermectin use. It's still hard to figure out exactly what happened in the interview -- KFOR edited out its reporter's questions, showing us only the doctor's answers -- but McElyea seemed to be saying that ivermectin use was one factor contributing to the hospital backlog, not single-handedly or even primarily causing the backlog.

Even if McElyea did claim that ivermectin was the main factor, that would not be sufficient evidence that this was true. KFOR's article failed to quote anybody else who could have provided more context about what was actually happening in Oklahoma facilities. By contrast, an article published the same day by Oklahoma's Tulsa World newspaper quoted multiple people who focused on Covid-19 itself as a cause of the hospital congestion.

McElyea was also quoted in the Tulsa World article. There, too, he told a story about being unable for hours to find space at a big-city hospital for a gunshot victim he was treating in a small-town emergency room -- but this article did not attribute the scarcity of appropriate beds to ivermectin. In fact, the article did not mention ivermectin at all.

In a brief email to CNN on Monday, McElyea said he had been "misquoted" by KFOR. He said more in an interview last Friday with Oklahoma's News 9: "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."

KFOR has stood by its story. The station said in an email to CNN on Monday: "KFOR-TV's reporting regarding the pandemic, proper COVID-19 safety precautions, and effective treatment protocols has been fact-based, accurate, thorough, and consistent. It will continue to be so."

2) Aggregators didn't verify

In the era of online "aggregation," it's common for big outlets to jump on a local story and publish their own versions with little or no further reporting. But it's a risky practice at the best of times, irresponsible when the local story is based on a single source.

There was a bunch of imprudent aggregation here. Rolling Stone ran an adaptation of the KFOR story without appearing to do sufficient research to make sure the local report was sound. And Rolling Stone used an even-more-inflammatory headline: "Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says." (Rolling Stone, which didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, changed the headline and added an "update" after one hospital McElyea works with issued a statement that called the initial story into question. We'll discuss that hospital statement more in a moment.)

Additional outlets, including The Hill, Insider and Britain's Daily Mail, also ran versions of the KFOR story before amending or deleting those versions after the criticism began. (As of Tuesday afternoon, KFOR's story was still online.)

3) Liberal tweeters jumped

The tale of ivermectin overdoses cramming Oklahoma hospitals was amplified on social media by numerous liberal personalities with substantial followings. Perhaps the most prominent was MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who shared the KFOR piece with her more than 10 million Twitter followers. (MSNBC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.)

There are good reasons for liberals to be worried about the impact of Americans taking ivermectin for Covid-19, particularly instead of getting vaccinated. But that doesn't excuse the decision to promote thin but sensational claims about the impact of the drug.

4) Some conservative tweeters also jumped to conclusions

After McElyea began receiving criticism, one hospital he has worked with, Northeastern Health System Sequoyah, issued a statement saying he hadn't worked there in more than two months, that the hospital hadn't seen any patients with complications from taking ivermectin and that it "has not had to turn away any patients seeking emergency care."

In some corners of the right, this statement was taken as definitive evidence that the doctor was a liar. Some of McElyea's critics even left terrible reviews for him on medical websites.

But again, it was not clear McElyea had actually said anything untrue, let alone that he had deliberately lied. Also, these critics ignored the fact that the doctor's online information showed that he was affiliated with more than one hospital.

On Monday, another hospital where McElyea works, INTEGRIS Grove Hospital, said in a statement that "what we can confirm is that we have seen a handful of ivermectin patients in our emergency rooms." The hospital added: "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." In a follow-up message Monday night, hospital spokesperson Kristi Wallace said they had no beds available that night.

So there is some corroboration for the things McElyea actually said. And though, once more, there is no basis for the viral claim that ivermectin overdoses are driving hospital congestion in Oklahoma, it's possible that ivermectin is playing some role.

"While we are aware that hospitals across the state are currently struggling with capacity issues, the hospital association does not receive reports on specific medical issues," Oklahoma Hospital Association Patti Davis said in an email on Monday.