More tips for staying healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

COVID has changed the way we live and has brought with it some drastic changes, like social distancing.

While we don’t want to live like this any longer than we have to, there are new habits that will not only help us get through this challenging time, but can stay with us as helpful tools in our everyday lives.

  1. Maintain hand hygiene, cough and sneeze etiquette. Wash your hands with antibacterial soap and cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough.
  2. Wear face coverings. Even in pre-COVID times, it has been common practice in other countries to wear face masks to protect oneself from those sick with a cold or flu and to protect others when you are sick.
  3. Establish routines. It’s important for your mental, emotional, and physical health to maintain healthy eating habits and to get adequate sleep.
  4. Be wise on portion size. Most of us are less active during this time and it’s easy to overeat. Drink plenty of water and buy small cans of soda rather than super-sized containers.
  5. Plan your meals. This will help you reduce the number of trips you take to the grocery store, stick to your budget, and avoid food waste. Knowing what portions are appropriate for you and your family is also helpful. Try not to overdo it with fast food consumption, which tends to be higher in fat, salt, and sugar.
  6. Stay physically, mentally active. Walk outside and get some sunshine! If that’s not an option, there are plenty of workouts on YouTube! Pilates, yoga, Zumba, and many other exercise programs are available for free if you can’t get out of the house.
  7. Keep everyone connected. We have so many options nowadays like phone calls, text, Facetime, Zoom, and more. Houseparty, for example, is a newly popularized app that allows you to play games with a group of family and friends.
  8. Get some sun! Vitamin D is important for the immune response and getting sun will increase your vitamin D reserves. Open shades and windows while sitting in sunny areas of your home. And, if possible, go outside. Just remember to adhere to social distancing guidelines (maintaining 6+ feet between yourself and others).
  9. Manage your environment. This is especially important for those of us working from home. If you have the ability, designate a work area so that you can keep your work life and personal life separate.
  10. Stay informed. Pay attention to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and check your local government website. Getting your news from a variety of sources will ensure that you’re in the know about new developments in the fight against COVID-19 internationally and locally.

NCL calls on insurers to cover air medical services during COVID-19 crisis

May 5, 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) last week sent a letter to the CEOs of Cigna, Aetna, and UnitedHealth Group, urging them to enter into productive negotiations with air medical service providers to ensure coverage of emergency air medical transportation. The ask comes as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the country, making air medical services even more essential, particularly in rural America.

In its letter, NCL notes that it is increasingly concerned about emergency air medical access during this crisis, and that it believes this life-saving care should be covered by every insurance plan. NCL asks that insurers review the robustness of their coverage policies and immediately to enter into network negotiations with air medical providers so that this critical service is covered, and patients are never left with a bill they cannot pay.

Text of the letter, signed by NCL Executive Director Sally Green is below:

Dear Mr. Wichmann, Mr. Cordani, and Ms. Lynch:

The National Consumers League has long advocated for health care as a right and argued for fair treatment for all stakeholders across the health care spectrum – patients, physicians, hospitals, health plans, and health care providers. Our mission is particularly acute during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when medical professionals are on the frontlines fighting for our health and safety, stricken patients need life-saving care, and nearly everyone is focused on their health and that of their loved ones.

In this vein, we are increasingly concerned about access to emergency medical care, especially in rural America, as the virus indiscriminately makes its way across the country. When minutes count, Americans who fall victim to COVID-19 must be assured that they can get to the nearest, most appropriate medical facility as quickly as possible. As COVID-19 strains hospital capacity and critical medical equipment like ventilators become attenuated, emergency air medical transports between facilities are often the only way for patients to get the care they need.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 85 million Americans can only reach a Level 1 or Level 2 trauma center within one hour if they are flown by an air medical helicopter. The effects of this access problem are staggering, and even more pronounced as we wrestle with the COVID-19 crisis. For many Americans, air medical ambulances are a vital link to timely, life-saving care.

We believe that such life-saving care should be covered by insurance. Patients pay their monthly premiums – and copays and deductibles – so they are not bankrupted should the worst befall them or their loved ones. Unfortunately, there have been far too many stories of people who were transported by air ambulance because it was ordered by a first responder or doctor, only to be told later by their insurance company that they would have to shoulder the bulk of the cost. This should not be the case anytime, but especially now as our nation wrestles with a pandemic.

This explains why we at the National Consumers League are writing to you for your input and thoughts. We believe that emergency air medical transportation should be included in every health coverage plan. We think that insurance companies and air medical providers must work together to bring these services in-network, so patients are not left footing a bill they can never hope to pay.  Adequate network agreements are imperative so that patients are not told – after the fact – that they were transported by an air ambulance that was not in-network. When an emergency happens, or worse yet, a pandemic strikes, patients are not choosing whether to take an air ambulance, let alone choosing a particular provider.  Similarly, coverage denials based on “medical necessity” should be the exception, not the rule, in light of the fact that patients are not a part of the decision-making process.

We ask that your companies immediately take a comprehensive look at your coverage policies for air medical services and the robustness of your provider networks. We urge you and the air ambulance community to enter into network negotiations, take patients out of the middle, find a middle ground on reimbursement that fairly compensates both sides, and ensure rural communities have access to air ambulance transports. Refusing to fairly negotiate is simply not an option in light of the current crisis. Entering into productive negotiations immediately will ensure that patients across the country have access to the medical care they need and that they are simultaneously protected from balance bills.

Thank you for your attention to our concerns.

Sincerely,

Sally Greenberg
Executive Director
National Consumers League

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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.

NCL: Annual in-office eye exams help diagnose potential problems

May 4, 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) has long recommended an annual, in-person eye exam as part of consumers’ annual health and wellness routines. An eye examination with an eye doctor ensures not only correct eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions, but also the opportunity for important preventive care as the eyes are a window into our overall health. An eye doctor, whether a primary eye care doctor of optometry or an ophthalmologist, can diagnose potentially hundreds of conditions during an exam, including diabetes, cancer, and macular degeneration. Through an eye exam, these doctors can catch an illness or disease early and treat it right away, making this care a critical part of our preventive care toolbox.

But now with COVID-19 keeping many of us at home, companies claiming to offer at-home vision tests are ramping up their marketing, despite the fact that there is no U.S. Food and Drug Administration- (FDA) approved at-home device that people can use to self-conduct a vision assessment, let alone a full eye examination. These devices have not been proven to even provide an accurate vision prescription. Consumers need to be wary of products that mistakenly claim that their at-home devices can provide an eye exam or a vision prescription and should instead consult their eye doctors who are available to help provide safe solutions.

NCL applauds state attorneys general for taking action and the media for publishing articles about the dubious effectiveness and potential dangers that at-home vision tests or devices present. It’s been important to tell consumers to be aware of false marketing promises.

As states begin to reopen health care access, eye doctors across the country are beginning to safely provide routine eye health examinations once again. Patients looking to schedule their annual eye examinations or update their prescriptions should contact their eye doctors, who are employing protocols to protect everyone’s health during this public health emergency.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing out the best in many companies across our country, there are those few who are taking this opportunity to mislead and misinform the public. NCL wants to remind consumers to be aware and understand that there’s no substitute for an annual, in-person comprehensive eye exam or for the doctor-patient relationship that’s at the heart of healthy outcomes, especially when it concerns our precious eye health and vision. When it comes to your eyes, you don’t fool around!

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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.

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.

How do we deal with the ‘ticking time bomb’ in agriculture?

Reid Maki is the director of child labor advocacy at the National Consumers League and he coordinates the Child Labor Coalition.

It’s been referred to as a “ticking time bomb,” the coronavirus and its potential impact on farmworkers—the incredibly hard-working men, women, and children who pick our fruits and vegetables and provide other vital agricultural work. Farmworkers perform dirty, back-breaking work, are notoriously underpaid for it, and now face great risk from COVID-19.

Farmworker advocacy groups that National Consumers League (NCL) works with or supports—such as Farmworker Justice, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and a national cadre of legal aid attorneys—have spent weeks strategizing about ways to protect the community they know is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Advocates have reached out to administration officials and Congress for desperately needed resources to support impoverished farmworkers with little to show for it. Despite their essential contributions to the economy, farmworkers have been cut out of the emergency relief packages. The Trump Administration has even revealed plans to lower pay for agricultural guest workers who sacrifice home and family to come to the United States to perform arduous farm labor. Advocates fear that decreasing guest worker wages would drive down wages for farmworkers already living and working in the United States.

Farmworkers are poor, with extremely limited access to healthcare and, due to their poverty, often work through illness. The risks of an outbreak is especially great because workers often toil in close physical proximity to one another as they harvest, ride to the fields in crowded buses and cars, have limited access to sanitary facilities, including hand-washing, and often live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

The majority of farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico or are the children of Mexican immigrants. The community is socially isolated from mainstream America. Poverty forced many farmworkers to leave school at an early age. It also causes them to bring their children to work in the fields so that child labor can supplement their meager incomes. Language and cultural barriers further their isolation. NCL, through the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), which it founded and co-chairs, has committed to the fight to fix the broken child labor laws that allow children in agriculture to work at early ages—often 12—and to begin performing hazardous work at age 16.

When the virus began to move into America’s rural areas, many socially- and culturally-isolated farmworkers hadn’t heard about the virus.  Some were confused that the grocery store shelves were empty and that the bottled water they usually buy suddenly cost much more.

In some cases, farmworkers reported that the farmers they work for have not told them about the virus or the need to take special precautions while working. Farmworkers face an alarming dearth of protective equipment. Many farmworkers groups, including UFW and Justice for Migrant Women, are urgently racing to provide masks and other protective gear.

A farmworker with COVID-19 is unlikely to know he or she has it and, therefore, very likely to keep working and infect their family and coworkers. Recently, a growers group tested 71 tree fruit workers in Wenatchee, Washington, according to a report in the Capital Press newspaper. Although none of the workers were showing symptoms of COVID-19, 36 workers—more than half—tested positive!

The conditions faced by farmworkers are a “superconductor for the virus,” noted advocate Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a New York Times opinion piece, in which he concluded that “the U.S. food supply is in danger.”

The current circumstances reminded Asbed of a previous crisis: “A century ago in ‘The Jungle,’ Upton Sinclair wrote about how the teeming tenements and meatpacking houses where workers lived and labored were perfect breeding grounds for tuberculosis as it swept the country. Now there is a new pathogenic threat and the workers who feed us are once again in grave danger,” said Asbed, adding that the “ two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread—social distancing and self-isolation—are effectively impossible in farmworker communities” because farmworkers live and work so closely together.

The looming food crisis is not just an American phenomenon, reported the New York Times. “The world has never faced a hunger emergency like this, experts say. It could double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year,” noted reporter Abdi Latif Dahir. “The coronavirus pandemic has brought hunger to millions of people around the world. National lockdowns and social distancing measures are drying up work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes—leaving millions to worry how they will get enough to eat,” added Dahir.

An article in The Washington Post warned that, in the United States, the farm–to-grocery distribution system is breaking down under the strain of the virus and that farmers are plowing in fields of crops. The Trump administration has announced a $19 billion plan to buy agricultural products and get them to food banks, which are experiencing shortages and, in some cases, mile-long lines of cars waiting for help.

In the United States, the federal government’s responses have been focused on helping farmers—which is fine; we all want farmers to be helped—but we cannot forget or neglect the needs of desperately poor farmworkers. In the absence of federal aid, some states are working to protect vulnerable farmworker populations. To help achieve social-distancing, Washington State has set housing rules requiring guest workers have double the current space.

Wisconsin issued similar rules requiring six-foot social distancing for farmworkers as they work in the fields, ride on buses, and sleep in grower-provided housing. The plan mandates protections for farmworkers who acquire the virus and calls for fines of up to $500 for violations.

In an April 15 letter, Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “take swift and decisive action to publicize and implement a plan to immediately and equitably stabilize the agriculture industry, and to support agriculture producers, food processors, workers, and local food systems, regardless of the size of the operation. This plan must include resources, guidance, and protection for these workers,” Wolf continued. “Every sector of agriculture, food processing and distribution, retail, grocery stores, and farmers markets are negatively impacted by COVID-19 and need support.”

“The closing of many child care facilities has meant many farmworker women must stay home with children, which translates to lost income and fewer workers for farmers,” noted Cleo Rodriguez, a CLC-member who heads the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association.

“The closing of schools may mean that younger teens are increasingly pulled into agricultural child labor,” suggested Norma Flores López, who heads the CLC’s efforts to protect farmworker children. “We’re very concerned with the number of children that are going to be working in the fields,” said Flores López, adding that child labor increases children’s risk of exploitation, wage theft, and sexual exploitation.

Concerned about these developments, the CLC wrote letters this week to several appropriators and the Committee on Agriculture, asking for additional nutritional and childcare resources for farmworker families.

We all need to eat. It’s incumbent upon us to protect farmworkers and our food supply chain. “It’s time to step up,” said Rodriguez.

Here’s what consumers can do to help protect farmworkers in these dire circumstances:

  • Sign the Food Chain Workers Alliance to urge Congress to include resources for food chain workers: https://tinyurl.com/yddvcm2w.
  • Sign UFW’s petition urging Congress to stop Trump administration efforts to lower wages for agricultural guest workers: https://tinyurl.com/y9jgtsow.
  • Make masks and send them to farmworker groups in your state.
  • Urge congressional representatives to fund farmworker relief efforts.
  • Donate to any of the excellent farmworker groups we’ve mentioned in this piece.

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.

 

Coronavirus and unsafe working conditions for poultry workers

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

In these uncertain times of COVID-19, many workers are being exposed to the disease at poultry plants across the United States. Eater notes that many of these workers are Black, Latino, or immigrants earning low wages and working in overcrowded conditions to package the items that end up on the plates of many families across the States.

Let us dive in a little deeper. The Los Angeles Times has highlighted the spike in coronavirus and meat plants across the United States, with hundreds of reported cases in the last week. This is, of course, a concern to the food supply chain and worker safety. The Associated Press has reported that massive meat processing plants have temporarily closed due to workers contracting COVID-19. This raises concerns about shortages of beef, pork, and poultry. At the same time, workers are being exposed and are succumbing to COVID-19.

The New York Times also reported that workers are standing elbow-to-elbow to do the low-wage work of cutting and packing meat. Many have been on the front line of these packing plants while being sick because they cannot afford to stay home and sacrifice paychecks. Some have staged walkouts to protest being insufficiently protected. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which has a seat on the National Consumers League’s Board of Directors, has engaged in talks with Cargill, which has agreed to give employees a $2/hour emergency pay increase in addition to a pay raise. The union and Cargill are working on ways to better practice social distancing within the packing plants. Increased sanitization and screening at the plants, and virtual health visits will be expanded for those seeking care health care.

Each day brings new information about COVID-19. When going to the store to purchase meat, let us remember that someone stood in a plant slaughtering and packing it. They are on the frontline risking their lives so that we can eat. UFCW is calling on ALL food employers to step up by developing ways to protect workers and by compensating them commensurate with the risks they are taking to deliver quality products to the grocery stores, restaurants, and family tables of America.

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.