College of Public Health Alum Examines Use of Dietary Supplements against COVID-19

By Kev' Moye

Corbin Norton, M.D., MPH, a urology resident at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, had his research project, “Analysis of COVID-19 Pandemic on Supplement Usage and Its Combination with Self-Medication within the State of Arkansas,” published by the Journal of Dietary Supplements.

“In the spring of 2020 when COVID was first confirmed in Arkansas, there was no vaccine,” Norton said. “However, there was a lot of misinformation circulating within the general public about using dietary supplements or other home remedies to either treat or avoid getting COVID-19.

“Our research revealed that it was common for people to take vitamins and other supplements such as elderberry, turmeric and other home remedies to give their immune system a boost.”

Norton, who graduated from the college of public health in 2021, began the study as a student in the school’s MD/MPH Combined Degree Program.

Shortly following the pandemic lockdown, all UAMS classes were postponed. Suddenly, Norton found himself with free time from clinical duties and decided to volunteer at the COVID-19 Call Center. It was while working within the call center he began to wonder how fear and misinformation were contributing to the pandemic within the state of Arkansas and affecting its response.

“I wanted to find out how many people were actually taking medications such as hydroxychloroquine and other home remedies that had received so much attention in the news, on social media and were being strongly touted by many public figures,” he said. “I also wanted to know if any of these vitamins, supplements or medications were actually effective.”

Norton analyzed data collected from nearly 16,000 patient interviews from UAMS COVID-19 testing sites from March 15 to Aug. 1, 2020. Data on dietary supplements and medication use was available for 8,150 study participants.

To find out the efficacy of these supplements, vitamins and medications, Norton calculated UAMS patients’ symptoms scores for those patients who reported taking over-the-counter supplements or medications. He and his team then compared these average patient symptom scores to patients who denied taking any supplements or medications to determine if there was any appreciable difference.

The study revealed that there was no significant difference in terms of reported COVID-19 symptom scores across any of the analyzed home remedies.

“We didn’t see any difference,” he said. “It correlated to what previous research has revealed regarding how other over-the-counter vitamins or cold and flu remedies don’t necessarily prevent a person from getting the common cold or a virus like COVID-19.”

Norton and his co-researchers did note that there were several ethnic differences among respondents in terms of supplement usage to prevent getting COVID-19. “The majority of the responders were white, female and younger,” Norton said. “We also saw that African Americans had a higher rate of elderberry use.”

Overall they found that 21.9% and 4.1% of Arkansans reported using supplements or medications, respectively, to either prevent or treat COVID-19. According to Norton, among the most popular supplements were vitamin C, multivitamins and vitamin D.

Norton said the study helped shed light on the importance of getting accurate and timely information to the general public. He also mentioned that the study showcased the value of health care and public health officials working as a cohesive unit to help people remain safe.

“A lot of media attention at the time focused on people taking certain medicines and other homemade remedies against the recommendation of health care officials,” Norton said. “However, despite so much noise and misinformation, we did not see a majority of patients taking these treatments. That was encouraging. It revealed that people used critical thinking.

“Ultimately, taking supplements, extra vitamins, antimalarial medicines should not take the place of getting the COVID-19 vaccine and following safety guidelines established by health professionals,” he said.