For patients’ safety, it’s time Congress updated rules governing the $10 billion contact lens industry

Contact lenses have come a long way since they were first introduced around 70 years ago.  Today, roughly 45 million Americans rely on them for safe, affordable vision correction each year.  But along the way, federal regulation of the contact lens market has not kept pace with the changing way Americans purchase and rely on these medical devices.  The result is that thousands of American consumers are at risk each year of adverse eye health outcomes including keratitis, corneal scarring, corneal ulcers, and infection.

Under federal law, online contact lens retailers do not require patients to provide their prescriptions before ordering contact lenses.  Patients can simply tell the retailer the lenses the doctor prescribed for them and the retailer then must verify the prescription with the prescribing doctor.  As required by the Federal Trade Commission’s Contact Lens Rule (“Rule”), contact lens-prescribing doctors have eight hours to respond to an online sellers’ verification communication before the contact lenses are sent to patients. If they don’t respond, the online contact lens seller can ship the products, regardless of the fact that prescription accuracy hasn’t yet been verified. Since the Rule was implemented in the mid-1990s, before the adoption of email, many sellers used automated telephone calls, or so-called “robocalls,” to fulfill the verification requirement of the Rule.

These automated robocalls use computer-generated voices.  They are often inaudible.  They frequently contain incomplete patient information, and, in practice, these robocalls are sent via computer at all hours of the day and night without noting any call back number to correct errors. This cumbersome process makes it nearly impossible for eye doctors to properly verify contact lens prescriptions.  In fact, this prescription verification system can lead to the shipment of incorrect contact lenses to patients with potentially dangerous consequences for patient vision health and safety.

As many consumers can attest from being bombarded with marketing robocalls, making sense of them is a nightmare. Using robocalls to verify important patient information, for the reasons previously outlined, is unsafe.

Current technology is capable of far better than this robocall system, especially due to the various forms of electronic communication we use today. These technologies can produce receipts, notify consumers of product shipments, and share product alerts and updates. Electronic communication is far more reliable and effective because it’s inexpensive, easy to understand, accessible.  It also creates a verifiable paper trail.  Therefore, we believe sellers of contact lenses should be required to use email or other forms of electronic communication, not automated robocalls, to keep consumers safe.

The FTC’s revised Contact Lens Rule also adds a cumbersome paperwork requirement that consumers and eye doctors need to complete at the end of a contact lens exam and fitting. Under this rule, prescribers must collect and store a so-called signed acknowledgment form in which a patient verifies that they received a copy of their prescription, as is already required under federal law.

That’s all well and good, but we believe a far better system to inform contact lens patients of their rights would be to require prescribers to post a sign in their offices, which is clear and conspicuous, noting that patients have a right to a copy of their contact lens prescription at the completion of their contact lens fitting. This type of posted signage is already mandatory in California, seems to be working well there, and we think it should be emulated on the federal level.

That’s a better solution because like many other forms consumers and patients are asked to sign, consumers probably won’t take time to read the form and thus won’t understand what they are signing; this is an ineffective exercise, in our view, and will result in more paperwork without necessarily ensuring patients have access to their prescriptions as the law intends.

In short, it’s time for Congress to update the rules governing this important, $10 billion industry.  It should start by requiring the use of the latest technologies—not robocalls—to get consumers the information they need about their eye prescriptions and that those prescriptions are verified as accurate by their eye professionals.

National Consumers League releases report examining sustainability, consumer choice, and confusion in food and beverage packaging

Oct. 1, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL) has released a report on the rampant confusion among consumers about food and beverage packaging recyclability, and is today calling for changes to sustainability in food and beverage packaging for brands, retailers, and policymakers. The report explores the recycling enterprise in the United States, marketing and labeling practices, and packaging options that contribute to sustainability—and finds that most consumers are in the dark when it comes to the reality of the state of recycling in the United States.
“Consumers have no idea what is recyclable and what isn’t,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of NCL. “More effective and transparent labeling is necessary to advance sustainability goals for the benefit of consumers and the environment.”

The report finds that common symbols, especially the “Mobius Loop” triangle, misleads consumers about the recyclability of products—especially plastic—which is not, in fact, endlessly recyclable and usually ends up in a landfill or the natural environment. While some companies are leading the way on packaging sustainability, switching to endlessly recyclable glass bottles or metal cans, others are making short-term cost calculations without taking into account the long-term damage.

“Companies can, and should, employ packaging choices to promote sustainability,” said Greenberg. “Manufacturers and retailers, alike, should offer the most sustainable options wherever possible, whether it’s beverage containers or single-serving food packaging. We hope our report will help raise awareness about sustainability and ensure that consumers have better information and a greater selection of sustainably-packaged food and drinks.”

For more information about NCL and this report, please visit www.nclnet.org.

Read the report (PDF): Examining Sustainability, Consumer Choice, and Confusion in Food and Beverage Packaging

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Reopening the economy prematurely has dire consequences for states

By NCL Health Policy intern Talia Zitner

The past month has seen a serious surge in reported coronavirus cases in the United States. It seems the virus is going to be with us for a while. Of states where COVID is spiking, the majority are in the South, many of which had ambitious reopening plans that are now being reconsidered.

Three of these states—Texas, Florida, and Arizona—have current surges. All three pushed to reopen their economies early in an attempt to “return to normal.” The current deluge in cases that resulted was due to a lack of continuing stay-at-home order and a failure to require masks.

Texas officially started Phase 1 of its reopening plan on May 1, but—as of June 26—had to retract much of the opening that it had started. In total, Texas was only able to reopen the state for 55 days. As of July 27, Texas has seen an average of 8,089 new cases of the coronavirus over a seven-day period. Compared to cases in April, when there were 814, this is astounding. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) has since ordered everyone to start wearing face masks and has limited the size of public gatherings.

It does not appear that Texas will shut down again, however. As the governor said, “we need to refocus on slowing the spread, but this time we want to do it without closing down Texas again.” Although it is an issue of public health, the issuance of a statewide masking policy and the staggered re-opening of the economy has become a matter of contention across party lines. Some residents find the Governor’s actions to be inadequate, and others feel as if the newly implemented precautions impede their personal liberties.

Florida and Arizona are not faring much better. As of April, Florida had 1,027 cases reported. In July, it was 6,563. Florida started its reopening plan on May 4 and entered into Phase 2 on June 5. Clearly, cases have surged.

Earlier this week, Florida reported 8,892 new COVID-19 cases. Like Texas, there seems to be a mixed reaction among Florida representatives to slow the spread of the virus. Senator Rick Scott (R) has been vocal about his intentions for Florida, and it appears the state will not roll back any of its reopening course. As Senator Scott put it a couple of months ago, “wearing a mask is a choice you get to make.”

Like Texas and Florida, Arizona is hurting badly, with only 115 in April surging to 4,753 cases in July. Arizona’s stay-at-home order lasted until May 15, and was replaced by the new Stay Healthy, Return Smarter, Return Stronger Executive Order, on May 16. When Arizona first reopened, Governor Doug Ducey did not require residents to wear face masks, but as the case numbers increased, he allowed local governments to set their own masking policies. As of July 1, officials said that Arizona saw the highest rate of new cases in the entire country.

Many public officials are starting to realize opening too soon was foolhardy and has spread the virus. New revelations by scientists show the virus can actually be airborne, urging those to take indoor transmission more seriously. The virus is also proving to be more of a blood vessel disease than solely a respiratory one, which may lead to long-term impacts that doctors are still learning about.

There’s one takeaway here: following the example of states like Texas, Florida, and Arizona is not recommended. The more seriously states take this crisis the better, and the sooner the entire country will be able to move towards a newer, safer “normal”.

Talia is a Washington, DC native and a rising sophomore at Wesleyan University, where she is studying English. Beyond health policy, Talia’s interests are in journalism, law, and social justice.

NCL statement on murder of George Floyd

June 3, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832 

Washington, DC—The National Consumers League (NCL) is deeply saddened by the recent unjustified killing of an African American man by police in Minneapolis—just the latest in a long, tragic chain of unwarranted deaths of African Americans by police around the nation. The following statement may be attributed to NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg:

The callous murder of George Floyd, an African American devoted father, husband, brother, and friend is especially devastating to me personally because it occurred only a few miles from the Minneapolis home I grew up in. Like millions of Americans, I watched as a police officer choked to death a man who was accused by a local store owner of a minor charge of passing off a counterfeit $20 bill.

Like many consumers of color, Mr. Floyd was suspected of a crime by just walking in the door. White Americans must grapple with this reality: African Americans are often followed in stores for no reason, pulled over by police for no reason, and have police called on them for no reason. NCL champions consumer protection and especially for those who suffer from discrimination and predatory practices when they engage in the everyday activities we all take for granted: shopping, walking, driving, jogging, playing music in our cars, or pumping gas. We have also seen how COVID-19 has had the most devastating impact on communities of color. These oppressive disparities must stop.

NCL’s first leader Florence Kelley, raised in an abolitionist Quaker family, refused to stay in hotels that didn’t admit African Americans and appeared on the original charter of the NAACP. To this day NCL has carried forth her legacy and stood alongside African Americans fighting for equality and fair treatment under the law.   

NCL supports the peaceful protesters advocating for systemic change. We pledge to be part of the solution as we try to move on from this devastating moment in American history and will seek out like-minded allies and friends to join us in this struggle.

We are all Americans, and we are all interconnected. It is time to listen and time for each of us to take responsibility to heal the nation. No more delays.

We can do this!

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

 

Grocery stores and safety measures needed to protect workers and customers during COVID-19

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

It was a rainy Thursday afternoon when I decided to take a trip to Mom’s Organic Market (MOM’s) in College Park, Maryland. MOM’s CEO, Scott Nash, was the subject of NCL’s We Can Do This! podcast a few months ago because he is infamous for consuming food whose “sell by” date is expired and living to tell the tale.

As expected, the parking lot was partially empty due to many neighboring businesses being forced to close due to coronavirus. I exited my car, pulled my mask over my mouth and nose, and walked in. I was greeted by a store employee also wearing a mask. He politely asked me if I needed a cart, disinfected it, and handed it to me. As I entered the grocery store, there were two signs: one that highlighted measures “Helping Each Other” during COVID-19, and the other noted that it is mandatory by law to wear a mask. It was good to read that if you forgot your mask, Mom’s Organic Market may be able to provide you with a disposable version.

In the produce section, everyone was practicing social distancing and wearing masks. I continued my journey through the grocery store from aisle to aisle, picked up a few things that I needed for my pantry, and went to pay for my items. As my turn to check out was approaching, I decided to engage the staff member who was standing on the side guiding customers on social distancing. I introduced myself and asked if she was a manager, and she responded with enthusiasm that she was. I asked her a few questions regarding the safety measures MOM’s is taking during COVID-19 and whether any staff members at the College Park location had tested positive. She said no but that if any staff member does test positive for COVID-19 or presents a doctor’s note stating that they need to quarantine for 14 days because they have been exposed,  they will be given 14 days of paid sick leave. Also if they want to stay home for longer, they could choose to do so without being paid, but would not be terminated. She also told me that if any staff member comes to work feeling sick, they would be sent home. All staff members are outfitted with masks and gloves and protective glass at check out counters. It was reassuring to know the safety measures that Mom’s Organic is taking during COVID-19 to protect workers and customers.

The experience I had at Mom’s Organic Market was one that I could relate to at other grocery stores across Maryland. But to understand what other stores are doing, across the country, I embarked on creating a survey, which we distributed to NCL Board Members who reside in different States. The grocery stores patronized were Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, Costco, and Gelson’s Market. According to our board, 80 percent of these grocery stores require that all customers are mandated by law to wear a mask while shopping. 13 percent of the grocery stores provide a mask if you do not have one. and 88 percent did not provide a mask. Among the stores, there is no mandated policy for customers to wear gloves while shopping. 89 percent of the grocery stores did not provide gloves to customers while 11 percent did. Regarding social distancing, 90 percent practice social distancing while 10 percent did not. 75 percent of grocery stores sanitized the carts and then handed a cart to the customer while 25 percent did not.

When asked the question: Does your preferred grocery store limit the number of customers that enter at each given time? 80 percent said yes while 20 percent said no. When asked if grocery store cashiers wear masks, 90 percent said yes and 10 percent said no. 70 percent of the grocery stores in this survey have a protective glass at the cashiers while 30 percent did not. 89 percent of the grocery stores have hand sanitizing stations for customer use while 11 percent did not. It is safe to conclude that most grocery stores are taking the necessary measure to protect customers and staff during COVID-19.

As luck would have it, the daughter of one of my NCL colleagues works at the Safeway bakery. I also talked to her about grocery store COVID-19 related safety precautions. She told me that each staff member at Safeway was provided with a mask, made of either medical or reusable cloth and that some staff who requested face shields were also provided with it. All cash registers were outfitted with protective glass and employees must practice social distancing—six feet apart.  Each hour, the intercom prompts workers to stop working and wash their hands while cashier wash their hands more frequently because they interact more with customers.

Safeway staff go through a checklist daily prior to their shift, with these questions asked:

Do you have any symptoms pertaining to COVID-19 or is there anyone in your family who has tested positive for COVID-19? If any staff member answers yes to any of the questions they are immediately sent home for 2 weeks of paid sick leave. Again, social distancing markers appear on floors at Safeway, and wipes are provided to sanitize shopping carts. Many of us visit grocery stores once or twice a week. It’s great to know that most of the grocery stores we visited or learned about are taking the necessary safety measures to protect workers and customers during COVID-19 and providing generous sick leave protections to ensure workers can afford to stay home if they are experiencing symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.

Water shut-offs across the country threaten our health and safety during pandemics

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

We all depend on running water to maintain good hygiene. Yet, as America grapples with the worst pandemic in several generations, unemployment is causing people to fall behind on essential utilities, like their water bill.

Consumer Reports notes that millions of Americans are at risk of losing running water. Two-fifths of the country relies on water utilities that have not put in place a policy of suspending shutoff for nonpayment during COVID-19. This is due to a confluence of related factors—institutional racism, environmental injustice, and poverty—which means communities that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also being the most adversely impacted by water shutoffs. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. How can you do so without running water?

According to NBC News, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks due to COVID-19. And in Michigan, 23.8 percent of residents have filed for unemployment since March 14, the third-highest number in the country. To add to their woes, Detroit residents that fall behind on waters by as little as $150 are being faced with water shut off. At the start of the pandemic, 2,800 homes were estimated to be without water. Those numbers will soar if action isn’t taken to protect those who can’t pay their water bills. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that reconnected shut off water service and started a $2 million grant program to help communities comply with the order, according to ECO Watch.

On the national level, no similar grant program has yet been introduced. The third rescue package included $1.5 billion to assist low-income households with water bills during the crisis, with a condition that required localities and utilities to suspend shutoffs to quality for financial aid. But the clauses were left out of the final bill approved by the Senate. There is some sign of political will with congressional Democrats wanting $12 billion for water subsidies in the fourth rescue package, with grants for utilities conditional on shutoff moratoriums, according to Consumer Reports.

Michigan also has one of the highest water rates in the country. Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Erik Olson points out that Coca Cola and Pepsi get months to pay their water bills and then turn around and sell bottled water at 100 times the cost of tap water. Consumer Reports found that most bottled water sold in the United States comes from the same source and just goes through a purification process before being sold to the consumer.

For those not facing utility shutoffs, Consumers Reports confirms that there is no shortage of safe drinking water and health officials–assuring us that the public water supplies are not contaminated by the Coronavirus–are prohibiting hoarding of bottled water. The bottom line is that running water is part of the solution to beating this pandemic. No one should lose access to water if we truly want to flatten the curve and move beyond COVID-19.

COVID-19 shows us the extraordinary importance of vaccines

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

What a bittersweet moment for advocates like NCL fighting off the lies and falsehoods spread by the anti-vaccine movement, as we start to see some anti-vaxxers changing their tune while still others continue to hold firm to their dangerously misinformed views. The reality is that a vaccine to fight COVID-19 would have prevented the global devastation caused by this disease and prevented the loss of nearly 60,000 lives and 27 million jobs nationwide.

Over the past decade, NCL has become a champion of vaccines and their extraordinary power to protect humans around the globe safely and effectively from many deadly diseases. Illnesses such as polio, tetanus, measles, smallpox, flu, mumps, measles, tuberculosis, human papillomavirus (HPV), that have maimed and killed billions of people, have ebbed or been eradicated, thanks to vaccines.

As a commitment to our advocacy, NCL has twice testified before the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) in support of the meningitis B and pneumonia vaccine (PCV-13). In our testimonies, NCL called for universal vaccination for children and adults, reaffirming vaccines as one of the greatest gifts modern medicine has provided to the human race.

Our comments also challenged the outrageous falsehoods spread by the small but vocal anti-vaccine movement. Their claims of vaccines causing autism have been debunked over and over, yet their power to scare parents lives on.

I grew up with an uncle who contracted polio a year before the vaccine was introduced. His illness was utterly devastating. Having a quadriplegic member of the family meant that from a very young age I developed an appreciation for vaccines and was comforted in knowing that I didn’t have to worry as my grandparents did about losing my son to a terrible disease.

Now Americans wait anxiously for labs and drug companies to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. This could take many months due to our remarkably high standards of safety and efficacy. I certainly hope this calamitous COVID-19 outbreak will be the death knell of the anti-vaccine movement. Sadly, I fear it will not.

COVID-19, what could it cost you?

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

As the nation continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, another top-of-mind concern is the cost associated with both testing and treatment for the illness. Between the boldness of certain state officials relaxing restrictions and the rapid ascension of cases, exposure to COVID-19 will inevitably rise.

The reassuring news is that the majority of Americans diagnosed will be able to recover from home. But what if you’re among the 15 percent that will need hospitalization? This subset of the population will require the most acute care, including admission into an intensive care unit and use of a ventilator. Between testing and treatment, there are a lot of factors for the consumer and patient to consider—outright costs of care, as well as cost-sharing (co-pays, deductibles, out-of-network costs, and more)—we did some of the research below.

Testing

  • Affordable Care Act (ACA)-compliant Plans: Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, all comprehensive health plans (individual, employer-sponsored, or ACA marketplace plans), must cover testing for COVID-19 at 100 percent.
  • Medicare & Medicaid: Testing is covered at 100 percent for Medicare and Medicaid.
  • Uninsured: Testing will be covered at 100 percent by Medicaid, as mandated by the CARES Act.
  • Non-ACA-Compliant Plans: Testing coverage may vary for consumers with non-ACA-compliant plans (i.e., short-term plans), as these plans are not subject to the protections found in the ACA.

Apart from non-ACA plans, there’s testing done in an emergency room, urgent care, or physician’s office, and all that should be covered. In addition, the health plan cannot impose prior authorization or cost-sharing restrictions (i.e., copays, deductibles, coinsurance) on the patient. Of course, access to testing is currently limited to those with symptoms or those working in health care facilities or other consumer-facing businesses. There are still strict criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).[1]

Treatment

Newly passed emergency bills do not address coverage of treatment. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 treatment for someone insured on an employer-based health plan could run upwards of $10,000, provided that there are no complications. For patients that require more acute care, costs could reach $20,000.

ACA-Compliant Plans: Health plans are not required to fully cover the cost of positive tests. A majority of the treatments for COVID-19 under ACA-compliant plans will qualify as essential health benefits, and as such will be covered. However, every state defines its own criteria for essential health benefits, and it is possible that some treatments will not be covered, based on where you live. Furthermore, coverage may vary depending on the type of group health plan you have (large vs. small).

Cost-sharing will also likely be imposed. Marketplace plans are required to cap maximum out-of-pocket costs for services covered in-network. In 2020, the maximum out-of-pocket cap is $8,150, meaning that if your care is deemed medically necessary, your out-of-pocket costs should not exceed that amount. Some plans have offered to cover patient-cost sharing for out-of-network care for COVID-19 in the absence of in-network availability. As an emergency course of action, several health plans have waived out-of-pocket costs like copays and coinsurance associated with treatment for COVID-19. To see where your health plan stands, click here.

Medicare and Medicaid: Medicare Part A (hospital stays) and Part B (doctor’s visits) will continue to charge copays and deductibles. The deductible for a 60-day hospital stay under Part A is $1,408. For Part B, the annual deductible is approximately $200. Cost-sharing related to Medicare Advantage and Medicaid plans will depend on your individual plan.

Uninsured: The Trump Administration has announced that part of the $100 billion of the $2 trillion appropriated for COVID-19-related relief in the CARES Act will be dedicated to reimbursing providers who treat uninsured patients. Provisions within the law include treatment for primary diagnosis of COVID-19 in a variety of settings, both emergency and non-emergency transportation, and post-acute care. Services that will be excluded from coverage include hospice and outpatient prescription drugs.

While further guidance is pending, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has clarified the following: “as a condition of receiving funds under this program, providers will be forbidden from balance billing the uninsured for the cost of their care.” This caveat reinforces that providers would get reimbursed at Medicare rates for delivery of uncompensated care and cannot balance bill the difference between Medicare reimbursement and the hospital’s charges.

In addition to the above, the law prohibits hospitals from charging patients beyond what they would pay in-network or what Medicare pays. The mandate against surprise billing serves to protect patients covered by government programs, employer-based plans, and self-purchased insurance.

Also, the growing loss of employer-based health coverage has prompted several states to extend their special enrollment periods to accommodate newly unemployed/uninsured patients during the pandemic. To see if you qualify for a special enrollment period, click here.

Non-ACA-Compliant Plans: Off-marketplace plans are not regulated by the ACA, and this could affect coverage for COVID-19-related treatment, where there is a possibility that treatment may not be covered outright. Examples of non-ACA plans include short-term health, fixed indemnity, and critical illness plans. These plans do not qualify for minimum essential coverage and are insufficient on their own, in our view.

Understanding insurance benefits can be daunting under ideal circumstances, let alone during a global health crisis. Consumers need enhanced accessibility and coverage now more than ever and NCL commends health plans for acting promptly to waive various cost-sharing measures. NCL urges Congress to continue to fortify and provide clear guidance for consumer protections, to ensure that they are not left stranded without vital care. Consumers, please know that there are COVID-19-related resources available to you—for more information, click here.

[1] To find a drive-thru testing site near you, click here.

A few out-of-the-box consumer tips for staying safe from coronavirus

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

At the National Consumers League, we’re all about protecting consumers during this terrible coronavirus pandemic. Most of us understand that we need to social distance, work from home if possible, wear masks when going out—especially on trips to the grocery or drug store—and not gather in groups larger than 10.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with my doctor to hear what she is telling patients about testing kit availability for both the virus and antibodies test, and to hear what other advice she is giving. She told me some things I’d like to pass along:

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relaxed requirements for developing COVID-19 tests and as a result, there are many kits to test for antibodies available for sale but very few—4 to date—have been approved by the FDA as high-quality and accurate. Consumers, don’t waste your money on phony or inaccurate tests.
  • Neither she nor any doctor she knows has access to the high-quality antibody tests. The good news is that there is plenty of capacity for testing people with COVID-19 symptoms. That was not always the case, so it’s a hopeful sign that there will be high-quality antibody tests available when the industry really ramps up.
  • For those who’ve had COVID-19 and recovered, the presence of antibodies alone is not sufficient. The best tests will show the level of antibody protection and whether those levels meet the threshold to protect us from contracting the disease.
  • Contact tracing is critical to curb this illness. My doc has traveled throughout the world and lived abroad for periods of time. She says without contact tracing we cannot hope to contain the disease. Former Peace Corp workers and health care providers who have worked around the world have this down to a science. Anyone who has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 has to go into quarantine for 14 days. My doc says that USAID has been doing this for many years when there’s an outbreak and it’s critical to containing the disease.

Until the appropriate infrastructure to test and contact trace for COVID-19 is established, my doctor suggested the following:

  • She recommends taking extra Vitamin C, extra Vitamin D, and Zinc. As a result, I’m taking two multivitamins each day based on the level of those three she is recommending.
  • She recommends getting some sun for at least 30 minutes a day to boost your immune system. Hopefully, most consumers are in climates that provide access to sunshine and can get outside. We know that is hard for people in apartment buildings or who have disabilities or live alone and don’t have support.
  • Finally, don’t assume you’ve been exposed and have antibodies just because you haven’t gotten sick. Until we have a vaccine, along with robust testing and contact tracing in place, we must continue to social distance.

 

Nation’s pioneering consumer-worker organization demands massive COVID-19 testing production, universal testing

April 23, 2020

Contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC –The National Consumers League (NCL), the nation’s oldest consumer and worker advocacy organization, is demanding that the federal government put its support behind massive COVID-19 test production and, as quickly as is feasible, put in place a testing protocol for every citizen so that America can get back to work.

“There are calls across the country to reopen businesses; we understand and share that frustration,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “However, as we are currently not allowing tests for people who are asymptomatic—and because 25 percent of people who carry the virus don’t show symptoms—doing so would be reckless. It’s a Catch-22. Until everyone is tested, we can’t send symptom-free people back into the world. So the government’s first order of business must include giving America’s labs and drug companies the goal and the means to produce rapid-response testing for every American within the next month.”

NCL has laid out the following recommendations:

Meet the need for testing in clinics and doctors’ offices

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must oversee the process of improving techniques and reliable, accurate test production. Many labs are working on this, addressing the immediate need for care providers to have enough, high-quality tests.

“The Senate has voted to include $25 billion for the clinical labs that make the tests in the next COVID legislative package” said Greenberg. “That is welcome news because states cannot do this alone; they end up competing against each other for tests and other supplies.”

As Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R-MD) said this week, “Every governor in America has been pushing and fighting and clawing to get more tests, not only from the federal government, but from every private lab in America and from across the world. It’s nowhere where it needs to be.” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D-VA) noted that the President’s claims that the country has enough tests for the virus are “delusional.”

Clearly, quality is paramount. The serious stumbles at such premier institutions as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cannot continue. “The federal government must continue to support and expand the production of quality tests, and at capacity to meet the current needs of care providers,” said Greenberg.

Universal testing

As stated above, though, in order to get people back out to restart the economy, we cannot only test those who show serious symptoms and go to care providers to get tested. We must develop tests that can be self-administered, and in adequate numbers so that each person can test for COVID before leaving the home on any given day.

“Millions of workers have to take drug tests every day to keep their jobs; those tests are rapid-response. Consumers can buy rapid response tests for strep throat and pregnancy,” said Greenberg. “Those are approved FDA products that are tested for accuracy and safety. We must get to a rapid response COVID-19 home test as soon as possible.”

In order to determine who has COVID-19 and should be quarantined, every American must be able to test for the virus on a regular basis. Those who test positive, with or without symptoms, go into quarantine for 14 days, as do the people in that individual’s household. Those who test negative are cleared to go out in the world to get the trains running again. This would call for hundreds of millions of tests to enable on-going testing, as it is the only path forward at this time.

And the technology is not “pie-in-the-sky.” The FDA has already approved one home-test kit, though it requires lab analysis. And BARDA/HHS has funded another company to develop “a rapid antigen and antibody diagnostic to identify current or past SARS-CoV-2 infections in 60 seconds.” We are on the road.

Antibody testing

While it’s not clear how long antibodies create immunity, there is a belief that they at least do so for the short-term. So the next step would be to provide serology testing for people who test negative for COVID-19, using only tests approved by the FDA to ensure quality and accuracy. To date, the FDA has approved only four tests of the many available, but this is an important start.

Those who are determined to have a sufficient level of antibodies should be cleared to go back to work, while still wearing masks and gloves until science has confirmed decisively that antibodies create immunity. If the individuals don’t have antibodies, they would be advised to stay home, but could be cleared to go back to work so long as they test every day before heading out.

Contact tracing

Everyone who tests positive reaches out to everyone they’ve had contact with and those people test for COVID-19. Anyone then testing positive goes into quarantine, and the process repeats.

Use technology to self-surveil

Finally, we need a system for uploading test results each day to our phones – like the bar codes we use to board an airplane – or to carry evidence that we have taken the test, have antibodies to COVID-19, and can work or otherwise go out.  Enforcement would be a new challenge, given our commitment to civil liberties, but one that we can certainly work out.

Longer term: Vaccinate

In a year or more, when a vaccine arrives, 95 percent of Americans will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and widespread protection.

“Our nation has the know-how and manufacturing infrastructure to produce the millions of tests needed to determine whether someone has the virus,” said Greenberg. “But due to lack of leadership at the top, our testing capacity is still, several months after the outbreak, extremely limited. To date only 3.3 million people have been tested, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That’s about 1 percent of the population. That is simply not enough.”

NCL is demanding that the Federal government respond to the current national Coronavirus emergency as President Roosevelt responded to World War II, and challenge Americans to “harness the efficient machinery of America’s manufacturers” to fight the pandemic.

“We need that call to action now, to challenge America’s labs and drug companies with the goal of producing testing for every American within the next month. Federal health care agencies including CDC, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and FDA should be their partners, and this should be a shared cost,” said Greenberg. “In the midst of the worst unemployment numbers ever seen in American history, and with millions of businesses having their existence threatened, we need federal leadership, expertise, and financial support to make this happen, and we need it now.”

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.