Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City has tightened security and locked down its intensive care unit in response to what it called social media attacks and said the hospital has taken legal action against a local religious leader.
An evangelical group, the Ekklesia of Oklahoma, protested outside the hospital on W Memorial Road last week, calling on Mercy to administer a certain dosage of a steroid for one of the group’s members, who was in the hospital with COVID-19.
The patient, Robert Barth, was critically ill and being treated in the intensive care unit on a ventilator, court records say.
His wife filed a request for an injunction against the hospital in an attempt to force medical professionals to follow a specific treatment protocol involving a steroid, budesonide, which is used to treat inflammation. A Texas doctor hailed the drug as a “silver bullet” cure for COVID-19 since 2020, but its effectiveness is unproven.
Barth was receiving that drug as part of his treatment in the hospital, but his wife requested he be given a higher dose more frequently, court records show.
She filed the request Wednesday, the day after the protest. Barth died Thursday evening, according to court records.
Barth, 70, tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 17. He was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 23 with respiratory failure and COVID-19 pneumonia, according to court records that detail his time in the hospital. He was not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Oklahoma City religious leader accused as Mercy Hospital doctor is doxxed on social media over COVID-19
The founder of Ekklesia of Oklahoma, the Rev. Daniel Navejas, was among those who protested outside the hospital.
On Friday, Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City filed a request for a restraining order and preliminary injunction against Navejas, spurred by a Facebook post in which he described one of the doctors caring for Barth as a “murderer,” according to court documents. The post, which is included in screenshots in the filing, appears to have since been deleted.
The doctor, “his wife, and his small children are in fear for their lives,” the hospital’s attorneys wrote in the request.
Someone commented on Navejas’ post with the doctor’s home address. The hospital said that, along with comments that said the doctor should be run out of town, “have crossed the line into an extremely perilous situation.”
In a letter to Mercy employees on Friday, Jim Gebhart, community president for Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City, and Dr. Jesse Campbell, the president of Mercy Clinic Oklahoma, wrote that Mercy had a team “monitoring these online attacks in real time.”
Additional security officers and police officers will be at the hospital “for the foreseeable future,” they wrote.
“The ICU is locked down until further notice,” the letter read. “Security will be posted at the ER entrance 24/7 and is continuously rounding throughout the hospital. Individualized security plans are in place to protect co-workers who have been threatened online.”
They also said that claims made against Mercy Hospital and its caregivers are “categorically untrue.”
“We do not make money from the heartbreaking deaths of our patients,” they wrote. “And our co-workers are not murderers. … You all are incredible, devoted caregivers who respond to a calling to dedicate your lives to healing the sick. You have endured enough during the past two years, and we will not stand by and allow you to be verbally attacked.”
Dr. Jean Hausheer, who leads the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition, said Tuesday that while the coalition couldn’t comment on the specifics of the situation with Mercy, the group supports frontline health workers.
“For anyone to criticize the integrity of those whose sole purpose is saving lives — let alone accusing them of murder or financially … benefiting from deaths of patients — is patently false,” Hausheer said. “It’s highly offensive to us and should absolutely be condemned.”
Navejas didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but on Facebook he said he and the Ekklesia of Oklahoma don’t encourage violence or threats.
“Let it be made abundantly clear, The Ekklesia of Oklahoma nor myself have ever threaten (sic) nor encourages violence against Mercy Hospital nor their employees,” he wrote. “We did protest and desperately attempted to get the attention of hospital leadership where we in a calm manner and respectful demeanor pleased (sic) for emergency intervention for our beloved brother Bob Barth.”
What is budesonide and is it used to treat COVID-19?
When budesonide is inhaled, it can be used as a treatment for asthma, and it can be taken in pill form as a treatment for Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
It’s used to treat inflammation locally in the lungs or intestinal tract, but has limited absorption in the rest of the body, said Dr. Stan Schwartz, chief executive officer at WellOK, the Northeastern Oklahoma Business Coalition on Health.
“I haven’t seen really good data about budesonide, because when it’s inhaled in the lungs, it tends to have most of its effect in the lungs,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “What we now know is that the effect of steroids may be important in other internal organs — the fat tissue, liver tissue, adipose tissue, heart tissue.”
He said he hasn’t seen it as a standard treatment for COVID-19, and until it is fully studied in a randomized trial, it’s difficult to know whether it may be inferior or superior to existing, authorized COVID-19 treatments.
Steroids are a key part of treating patients for COVID-19 in the hospital, said Dr. David Chansolme, medical director for infection prevention at Integris Health. But the steroid often used to treat COVID-19 patients is systemically absorbed — meaning it affects the whole body — rather than locally absorbed, like budesonide.
Even before COVID-19, patients and their families had demanded specific treatments, Chansolme said. The pandemic has magnified those kinds of requests, he said.
“That’s OK. We know that families are scared,” he said. “It’s our job to continue to educate, to try to make understandable the science that we understand. … It’s our job to practice medicine the best we can.”