Key GOP senator looks backwards on coronavirus treatment

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Ron Johnson held a Senate hearing on hydroxychloroquine and blasted "bureaucrats" for not making it more widely available.
Image: Senate Homeland Security Committee Holds Hearing On Government's Interagency Response To Coronavirus
Chairman Ron Johnson, R-W.I., speaks at the start of a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the government's response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Washington on March 5, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

During a pandemic, the Senate Homeland Security Committee could conceivably play an important role. After all, a deadly pandemic is, by definition, an enormous domestic threat.

But in 2020, the Senate Homeland Security Committee is led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

In mid-March, as the scope of the coronavirus crisis was coming into view, the Wisconsin Republican went further than most in downplaying the importance of mitigation efforts. As part of his case, the senator told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "[W]e don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about." As regular readers may recall, this was a bad argument, for reasons the Wisconsin Republican didn't seem to fully grasp.

A couple of months later, Johnson was seen on the Senate floor without any facial covering. "I wear a mask when I go into grocery stores, that type of thing," the GOP senator said. "I think around here, we probably won't have to." This, too, was a bad argument.

In July, Johnson argued that the United States "overreacted" in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which was unfortunate at the time, and which is a perspective that looks much worse now.

It was against this backdrop that Johnson's committee held a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday that was officially focused on "COVID-19 early outpatient treatment." But more specifically, the Republican senator seemed especially interested in a more specific topic: hydroxychloroquine.

"We should have the right to access this without the interference of bureaucrats in the CDC, NIH, and the FDA. And that is exactly what's happened. I can't get it. Millions of Americans can't access it because of the disinformation, the scaremongering, and the prescription log jam that has been created by bureaucrats."

Moments later, Johnson was dismissive of those who balk at using hydroxychloroquine as a COVID treatment, simply because it, "you know, hasn't been proven effective."

He didn't appear to be kidding.

Nearly year into a public-health crisis, as the United States suffers through a brutal third peak, as COVID-19 claims the lives of over 250,000 Americans, as hospitals nationwide are pushed to the breaking point, Ron Johnson held a Senate hearing on a dubious and unproven treatment, and chastised "bureaucrats" for not making it more widely available.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean at Brown University School of Public Health, appeared as a witness at the Senate committee, and soon after published a Twitter thread on how "very, very odd" an experience it was.

As the doctor explained, there were four witnesses, three chosen by Johnson, each of whom "strongly supported" hydroxychloroquine, and who seem to believe Americans are dying because they haven't received hydroxychloroquine.

What shocked Jha most was the Wisconsin Republican's apparent suspicion that there's a "coordinated effort by America's doctors" to deny patients hydroxychloroquine because of a corrupt scheme involving physicians and the pharmaceutical industry.

As for why the hearing was held in the first place, Jha added that the discussion "was meant to push a narrative: that masks and distancing don't matter. If you get infected -- no big deal -- take some [hydroxychloroquine]."

Jha described it as "stunning," which it surely was. But given what we've seen from Ron Johnson, it unfortunately wasn't surprising.