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In these unprecedented times, you want and need reliable information. We’re committed to giving it to you.

That’s why the controversy surrounding a Detroit News opinion piece last week deserves analysis and explanation. In the end, it illustrates the essential role that newspapers play in providing checks and balances on government in a crisis.

The piece, entitled “Michigan’s doctors fight coronavirus, and governor's office,” was written by Kathy Hoekstra, and published on our website's opinion section on Thursday. Hoekstra is a former mid-Michigan broadcaster well known in Michigan journalism and communications circles.

Her well-documented commentary reflected on a letter issued by the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) to pharmacists and doctors, warning about allegations of doctors prescribing and hoarding two controversial medications — hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine — for the treatment of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

These two drugs were top of mind last week, as President Donald Trump hailed their potential and his chief infectious diseases adviser warned that they were not yet medically proven.

LARA’s letter, however, went well beyond a prohibition of hoarding.

Prescribing hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine without further proof of efficacy for treating COVID-19 or with the intent to stockpile the drug may create a shortage” for patients with ailments for which the drug is approved, the letter said (emphasis added). “Reports of this conduct will be evaluated and may be further investigated for administrative action.

“Again,” the letter went on, “these are drugs that have not been proven scientifically or medically to treat COVID-19.”

There was no question of the facts. Hoekstra’s opinion was equally clear: Threatening doctors and pharmacists against using the drugs was a quizzical, heavy-handed approach that could cost lives. Hospitals, she pointed out, already were using these drugs to treat COVID-19.

Unsurprisingly, the column was picked up by other outlets and on social media channels, with many assigning their own political spin.

Four full days after LARA’s initial letter (but less than a day after the column was published), the department ostensibly clarified itself. In a second letter, it repeated the warning against hoarding and included statements from medical associations. But it never backtracked on the threat to physicians and pharmacists about prescribing these drugs for COVID-19, sowing continued confusion

On Monday, LARA alerted its licensees that the FDA late last week authorized the emergency use of these drugs to fight the virus.

It took an explanation from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, to understand what happened. He asked the governor to issue the original letter to make clear that people shouldn’t hoard these drugs.

"We needed something to prevent cloroquine from becoming the next toilet paper," Shirkey told me. "I quickly requested of her staff that they put something out, and somehow in the translation it was prohibiting use of these drugs -- and that wasn't the intent."

"I was grateful for your article ... because it was the first thing that alerted me that it was screwed up."

In the meantime, the governor’s office took umbrage with the piece and The News.

“You know, one wacky idea would be to just ... not run crazy s--- on your opinion page during the worst global pandemic in 100 years,” Whitmer’s communications director Zack Pohl wrote me Saturday. “What qualifications does Kathy Hoekstra have? Is she a lawyer? Is she a physician? Who pays her salary? What exactly is her expertise here? If you don't immediately know the answers to these questions, how can you expect your readers to? And that seems like a problem.” 

The problem was neither the credentials of the writer nor the opinion she expressed. Nor was it The News’ standards for allowing her to express them.

This was not fake news, as critics of the piece alleged. It was public service journalism. LARA's original letter created fear among physicians desperate to treat patients dying of the virus.

That confusion was caused by miscommunication between branches of state government. It had the real potential to cost the lives of real Michiganians in real time. 

And it has been clarified because of that opinion piece in The News.

We’ll take the heat, gladly, because that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re here to do.

Gary Miles is the editor and publisher of The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 222-2594 or gmiles@detroitnews.com.

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