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U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, addresses the state House of Representatives, May 4, at the State Capitol.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor with decades of experience treating patients, said Louisiana residents who want to avoid dying from COVID-19 should take the vaccine — not the dewormer ivermectin. 

"While the vaccine is almost entirely effective at preventing death, ivermectin clearly is not," Cassidy said Tuesday. "Don't fool yourself into thinking that it is as effective as the vaccine is in preventing death."

There's no evidence to support the notion that ivermectin is effective at treating COVID-19, and when taken in large doses, the anti-parasitic can even be dangerous. 

But that hasn't stopped anti-vaccine activists, and even some GOP lawmakers, from promoting the drug as a miracle treatment for COVID. The misinformation can sometimes have deadly consequences. 

"I have personal experience with people who refused the vaccine who took ivermectin who died," Cassidy said. The vast majority of people dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated, including 84% of deaths during the last week of August. 

Ivermectin experienced a resurgence in popularity among anti-vaccine activists as Louisiana grappled with its fourth and deadliest surge of COVID. 

The drug hasn't been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in treating COVID and clinical trials into its effectiveness are ongoing. Still, its gained a foothold among a cadre of fringe doctors and amplified on social media as an early intervention.  

The flurry of falsehoods led the Louisiana Department of Health to issue a memo on Aug. 25 "strongly" recommending against the use of ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID. 

The next day, the state’s Medicaid program notified physicians and pharmacists that effective Sept. 1, prescriptions for ivermectin would only be covered when treating a parasitic disease diagnosis. That doesn't prohibit doctors from prescribing the drug for COVID-19, but it does mean individuals on Medicaid will have to pay for it out of pocket. 

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Responding to that order, a quartet of GOP state lawmakers penned a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards and the health department on Monday claiming, without credible evidence, that the drug was a "life-saving treatment for COVID." They called the order discriminatory against "the poor, the elderly, and the children of Louisiana."

The letter also seized on another thread of misinformation: that refugees entering the country from Afghanistan are being given ivermectin to treat COVID. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does recommend ivermectin for newly arriving refugees – but only to treat parasites. The drug is commonly used to treat parasitic worms or, in a topical form, to combat head lice and the skin condition rosacea. 

"How can it be that ivermectin is being prescribed for illegal refugees, but not for Louisiana citizens?!!" wrote Reps. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, Kathy Edmonston, R-Gonzales, Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, and Dodie Horton, R-Haughton.

It's unclear what the lawmakers mean by "illegal" refugees. The United States offers a safe haven for people fleeing war and persecution through an official refugee resettlement program. Refugees have the opportunity to become lawful permanent residents and eventually citizens.  

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, clarified in an email to members Tuesday that the letter was not an official statement from the House itself and didn't represent the views of the entire lower chamber. 

Cassidy, who taught at LSU's medical school before becoming serving as Louisiana's senior senator, said the evidence is clear: the vaccines work. 

"It's much better to take the FDA-approved vaccine than to take a chance with ivermectin that's not approved," Cassidy said.

Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater