Tag Archives: ventilators

You Have Been Scammed!

It was the end of February and I was at a pharmacy in Delhi, India. The house-help Julie looked over my shoulder at the medicine I was buying for her and whispered “Sunny Tiger (hand wash)” in my ear. “Sunny Tiger,” she said, “I want Sunny Tiger as well.” The threat of coronavirus hung in the air. TV stations had been exhorting people to buy sanitizer.

At the very same time in Kelowna, Canada, Councilwoman Mohini Singh was sitting down to her morning emails when her daughter Tara leaned over her shoulder and said, “Mum order some sanitizer please.” 

Tara took her mother’s credit card and went online to order three bottles of sanitizer.

When the bottles arrived in the mail they were the size of her index finger. The charge was $80.

Scammers have made off with $34 million in coronavirus-related fraud since the beginning of the year, reported the Federal Trade Commission.

Interestingly the fraudsters have targeted all age groups. Younger Americans ages 30 to 39 reported the greatest number of scams, while Americans ages 50 to 59 reported the highest financial loss. About 44 percent of the fraud complaints came from people who actually lost money – $5.85 million.

 

As part of their Family Emergency Scams advisory, the FTC warned grandparents specifically against family emergency messages that come from unfamiliar numbers and request wire transfers.

Scammers follow the money. They follow the headline, says Monica Vaca, Associate Director for the Division of Consumer Response and Operations in the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. The Division hears from consumers across the country about problems they experience in the marketplace, and manages and provides law enforcement access to the Consumer Sentinel Network. They deliver refunds to consumers resulting from FTC law enforcement actions.

Speaking at a webinar organized by Ethnic Media Services, Monica Vaca warned people to be careful of the offers — whether it’s by phone, by email or text. Government agencies and legitimate firms never ask for payment with a prepaid gift card or wire transfer. She told people to beware of logos and verbiage that are trying to masquerade as official, as they are scams to trick people into sharing personal information. 

Exploiting the fears and uncertainty triggered by the pandemic is the scam artist’s game.

The top category on the FTC’s list of complaints was travel and vacation; more than 5,700 complaints were filed with consumers reporting more than $8.7 million in losses.

Travel cancellations triggered by the pandemic proved a ripe breeding ground for scams. People who had to cancel travel plans they made in previous months lost money in airfare, hotels, and other components of planned vacations. Online shopping scams were also responsible for a significant chunk of consumer-reported claims.

The pandemic has enabled fraudsters to have a buffet of options. An offer of help could be very alluring to people grappling with understanding the Economic Impact Payment or stimulus payments promised by the government. Online shopping for the uninitiated can be a maze. Cures for the dreaded Coronavirus, flights home for students, and Facebook endorsements of companies are potential quagmires. 

Be warned, says the FTC.  A quick click of the mouse promises to make it all easy but can trick you into giving away personal information. Report scams to  ftc.gov/coronavirus. Check with the Better Business Bureau for businesses and charities you can trust and for warnings of the latest scams. If you have already paid, ask your credit card company to treat it as an unauthorized transaction. Beware of phishing emails and text messages that tell a story to trick you into clicking on a link or opening an attachment. 

The Federal Trade Commission announced the launch of two new interactive dashboards reporting on international fraud and scams related to the pandemic. One site, a partnership of 34 consumer protection agencies around the world, gathers and shares complaints about international scams submitted by consumers to econsumer.gov.  Another site has data on international reports submitted to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network.

In a recent case originating from Nigeria, scamsters tricked the German health authorities into transferring EUR 880,000 as an advance for facemasks. The Germans were scrambling to find facemasks and other critical medical equipment as the pandemic grew, said Interpol, when the scamsters struck.

The German government was not the only one overturning every rock to find equipment in Corona times. When President Donald Trump posted on Twitter to urge Ford and General Motors to “START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!” – Yaron Oren-Pines, an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley tweeted back: “We can supply ICU Ventilators, invasive and noninvasive. Have someone call me URGENT.”

Three days later, Buzzfeed reported that New York State paid Oren-Pines $69.1 million. The payment was for 1,450 ventilators — $47,656 per ventilator, at least triple the standard retail price of high-end models. 

No ventilators were delivered.

Ritu Marwah is a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.

COVID19 Testing is Our Salvation

We are weeks into widespread social distancing in many parts of the world, though it feels like months. Cases of COVID19 continue to mount, as expected, and we watch Italy and Spain for signs of when our society might be cast into crisis and chaos. Health care workers, the heroes of our time (and of all times, really), gird themselves for a flood of respiratory distress cases, projected to peak sometime in April. Physicians and nurses of all specialties are being asked to update their ventilator training in anticipation of being called to the front lines for service. Yet many fear that they will not have sufficient weapons for this fight, such as masks and ventilators.

At this time, it’s important to remember that COVID19 has a global case-fatality rate of about 2 to 3%, lower in the USA, meaning that most people will survive this. In the words of Larry Brilliant, “this is not a zombie apocalypse. It’s not a mass extinction event.” What is it, then? This is, and always has been, a health systems crisis more than simply a health crisis.

In a health crisis, we await salvation from a lucky mutation, a change in seasons (that will likely have no effect on this virus), a vaccine, or a cure. But in a health systems crisis, we can manufacture our own salvation through proper preparation, investment, leadership, and resource management.

In the early phase of a pandemic, it is possible to identify infected individuals, trace their contacts and quarantine them. Once there is community spread, the focus shifts to isolating populations and hardening the hospitals against the onslaught. We are clearly in this second half now.

At present, America’s one million hospital beds are not completely saturated by the number of serious COVID cases, except in overwhelmed places like New York. But in anticipation, health systems managers in many states are struggling to procure PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, and even sufficient front-line staff. But there is another way, and both Singapore and South Korea have shown us the first steps on that path.

With an extreme national lockdown that only permits movement of emergency personnel and essential services, lasting a couple of months or more, the number of new cases can be kept to a slow simmer. This is because it would take longer for new infections to occur, while allowing time for existing infections to resolve. The more severe the isolation, the longer it would take for a new case to emerge. The epidemic then recedes to a small number of active cases and a non-newsworthy number of hospitalizations.

The more lax these restrictions, and the slower governments are to enact them, the higher the peak of cases and deaths, and the longer it takes to push the rate of new infections down to a manageable number. But once that is achieved, we can all breathe a little easier.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) predicts that proper social distancing would see the end of the first wave of the epidemic by early June. The timing of the arrival of a second or even third wave depends on the public health interventions made when the first wave abates.

Cases in the US as of March 27, 2020. Image provided by Pharexia.

This post-lockdown, post-first wave scenario resembles the early phase of the pandemic, with a few cases and contacts. That, then, is the time to apply the force of a newly resourced awesome preventative public health system. The secret weapon is something that exists now, that we can manufacture or purchase: tests, and lots of them.

The deployment of rapid, frequent, public testing at a national scale would allow society to return to productive normalcy while keeping the disease to a simmering annoyance.

A Herculean investment in the flotilla of new testing options now becoming available, including rapid 15-minute in situ and at-home testing would give us the epidemiological data to control the outbreak. With sufficient human resources support, every case could be quickly identified and isolated, their contacts immediately traced and tested, as well.

This would require a commitment to a strong and well-maintained public health infrastructure. But such an investment would be a pittance compared to the costs of either the expansion of our hospitals to accommodate throngs of dying patients or the economic cost of many more months of isolation.

In particular, the serology or antibody test would be critical for managing our staged return to society. Such a test would detect the products of the body’s immunological response to the virus, and would therefore tell us if a person were currently or previously infected. If the latter, then they would presumably be immune, and would be granted a free pass to return fully to normal life.

While several serology tests are now on the global market, some jurisdictions do not yet licence them. The challenges are largely scientific. First, the test cannot distinguish between past and present infection, so it would have to be followed up with another test to detect the presence of the virus and therefore determine if the person was still infectious. Second, the potential for false positives is high as it might detect antibodies to other coronaviruses, such as the common cold. And third, it is not yet known how much antibody needs to be present to confer immunity.

On the other hand, the more common nasal swab test, employed on a wide scale in almost every city, relies upon a well equipped laboratory to render a result. But a global shortage of the crucial reagents has resulted in a backlog of pending tests in several places. In many cases, university research labs are being raided to help supply the public health laboratories.

Given that expanded testing, absent a cure or vaccine, is our best path out of the pandemic morass, a natural question is whether the shortages and backlogs could have been avoided. The answer, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, is yes. 

Years ago, the Obama administration put together a comprehensive pandemic response plan that included policy provisions for acquiring critical equipment. That plan was scrapped by the current administration, undoubtedly contributing to the apparent inconsistencies and lack of direction in the national response thus far, and to most states’ inability to acquire PPE and testing kits.

The politics of this failure are tied up in the ideological and personal conflicts between the present and former administration, as well as in the unending tension between private and public sector solutions, pertaining to the question of which sector is best equipped to order, manage, validate, apply and monitor the deployment of tests on a national scale.

Health care system crises like the COVID19 pandemic are not elemental disasters delivered by the gods, but rather are manageable aspects of 21st century globalized life. They can be overcome with good leadership, investment, and planning. Thus far, the leadership has been disappointing, the investment late, and the planning ignored. But there is time yet for these problems to be solved, not by the rare and precious front line clinicians risking their lives, but by the administrators and policymakers, of whom we have no short supply.

Raywat Deonandan, PhD, is an Epidemiologist, Associate Professor and Assistant Director of the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa in Canada. www.deonandan.com


Featured image is CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase (RT)-PCR Diagnostic Panel.