Beware of COVID-19 scams, price gouging, AG says

From selling bogus coronavirus cures to disease-related phishing scams and robocalls from fake health department officials, Attorney General Josh Stein said on Wednesday that his office is looking into consumer complaints surrounding suspicious COVID-19 marketing.

“Our primary concern has to be about public health,” he said. “It has to be about keeping people healthy and well and alive, but we will not tolerate criminals trying to exploit people’s fears to make a quick buck.”

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He said his office has been made aware of robocalls from fictitious health officials telling people that they have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 and that they must be tested before they can leave their home. The call then offers to sell them a test.

“Obviously, the local health departments are not doing this and would not do this,” he said.

He also said his office handled 136 complaints of price gouging since the governor declared a state of emergency last week. Roughly half of the complaints concerned grocery-related pricing complaints. Other complaints involved outrageous pricing for items such as hand sanitizers and cleaning products.

At a press conference, a man, who is the attorney general at NC is speaking at the podium. A woman who is the state health director is standing far apart from him, modeling social distancing due to coronavirus.
Attorney General Josh Stein said his office has been made aware of several coronavirus-related scams and price gouging schemes. Also in the photo is Betsy Tilson, state health director. Photo credit: Liora Engel-Smith.

Stein said his office is investigating the complaints and to date, none violated the law. But if the office finds violations, he added, “we will act quickly and aggressively to enforce the law against any price gouger exploiting people’s fears.”

State rolls out 211 coronavirus help line 

People seeking information related to COVID-19 can call the state’s new 211 hotline.

Mike Sprayberry, director of emergency management, said the line is intended to divert non-urgent calls from 911 call centers. He also emphasized that 911 is only for emergencies.

The 211 line can provide information on food assistance and help people get other basic needs met, he added.

The state has also set up a text message service for updates on COVID-19.

To access the service, dial 211, or TTY 888-892-1162 for assistance.
You can text COVIDNC to 898211 to receive general information and updates about COVID-19.

Grocery stores will remain open

There are no plans to close grocery stores during the COVID-19 outbreak, Sprayberry said.

“Everyone needs groceries,” he said. “The supply chain to our grocery stores remains strong and stores are getting regular deliveries and restocking.”

He urged people to stop panic food buying.

“Leave some for others, especially those who can’t afford to buy a lot of food all at once,” he said.

Pregnant women now added to COVID-19 high-risk category

New evidence suggests that some pregnant women may be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, prompting NCDHHS to add them to the high-risk group, state health director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson said at Wednesday’s press conference.

The state’s list of high COVID-19 risk groups also includes seniors and people with underlying health conditions. The guideline for pregnant women is the same as for others in the high-risk category, Tilson said.

“Don’t go out, making sure that you are doing social distancing, and washing your hands really well,” she added.

graphic including an image of coronavirus

After dining-in ban, restaurants adjust to a new reality

Jeff Mauldin, owner of Carrboro Pizza Oven in Carr Mill Mall for the past two years, was alone in his pizzeria about an hour before the governor’s order was to go into effect on Tuesday and discussed safety practices and changes.

“We’re focusing on curbside service,” Mauldin said, pulling up a screen displaying the SWIPEBY app that he and his employees will start to use on Wednesday.

Mauldin has only eight employees and has not had to lay off anybody yet, but he has changed other things as the pandemic brings a new way of life for many.

At the top and bottom of each hour, employees are alerted to wash their hands thoroughly and wipe down surfaces. “As soon as they hear that chime, it’s sort of like Pavlov’s dog,” Mauldin said, explaining that he worked for Chipotle in 2015, when the restaurant chain shut down sites across the country after E. coli and norovirus outbreaks.

Mauldin soaked in a lot about food safety practices then. Now, financial transactions are limited to credit and debit cards only that customers must swipe themselves, he said. At the start of each shift, workers are greeted with a thermometer in their ear for  fever checks and questioned about any coughs or shortness of breath.

Elmo’s Diner, opposite his eatery in the mall, has closed temporarily.  “We are a small restaurant and we serve a large number of people daily,” the sign states. “We feel it is our obligation to pause on service as social distancing is hard to do in our environment.”

Piece of paper taped to a restuaranthostess stand
Elmo”s Diner in Carrboro tells its customers its space is too small for social distancing during COVID-19 pandemic and temporarily closes. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Cone Health opens a COVID-19 drive-thru clinic

In an effort to divert those seeking COVID-19 tests from the emergency department, Cone Health announced this week that it was opening a drive-thru testing site for coronavirus in partnership with LabCorp. The clinic will enable people whose physician deemed the test necessary to get tested in their cars, diverting them from crowded waiting rooms and the emergency department.

Since the center at 300 E. Wendover Ave. in Greensboro opened on Tuesday, clinic staff collected almost 100 specimens as of Wednesday morning, said Deborah Grant, chief nursing officer and vice president of ambulatory and clinical nursing services. The samples are then tested at LabCorp, and results come back within 4-5 days, Grant added.

Grant stressed that people seeking testing will have to be screened by a physician first. The clinic will only test people whose medical providers ordered the test, she added. The collection site is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Charlotte immigration court closes

The federal immigration court in Charlotte will close today and will remain closed until April 10, a spokeswoman from the Executive Office for Immigration Review said in an email.

The U.S. immigration court will continue to hear cases in which people are detained, according to the email, but all other hearings will be rescheduled. The court in Charlotte, which covers both South and North Carolina, does not typically have hearings for detained cases.

Case status and hearing date information may not be updated right away online and in the court’s automated phone system, the spokeswoman wrote, but will be updated when new hearing dates are in place. In addition to the Charlotte court, numerous courts in other locations, including Houston, Atlanta and Louisville, are also closed.

Telehealth flexibility

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced new flexibility for telehealth visits during the COVID-19 national emergency. Effective immediately, HHS will waive potential penalties for HIPAA violations against health providers serving patients through any communication technologies being used in “good faith.”

This includes audio and video communication with patients through apps such as FaceTime or Skype. In the past, these technologies were not considered secure enough to comply with the federal privacy law.

The new flexibility applies to all medical visits, not just those directly related to COVID-19, according to the HHS announcement.

The department will give further guidance on these types of visits soon.

Triangle hospitals join others in delaying elective procedures

The Duke Health, UNC Health and WakeMed systems all announced today that they’re rescheduling non-emergency, elective and non-critical surgeries in an effort to reduce their patient load as they look ahead to caring for coronavirus patients.

In an unusual three-way joint press release, the CEOs of the systems, which are usually fierce competitors, said they are working together to “combat the spread of COVID-19 and to serve the people of our state.”

“The current situation impacts us all greatly, and we are working together to ensure the safety and well-being of our thousands of health care professionals, our patients and their families. We believe this move will further our commitment to all of these groups,” said A. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Health, A. Eugene Washington, president and CEO of Duke University Health System and Donald R. Gintzig, president & CEO of WakeMed, said in their statement.

Guest workers coming to the U.S. delayed

As farmers prepare for the coming growing season, many of them depend on foreign laborers who come to the U.S. under the H-2A agricultural guestworker program. Many of these workers come from Mexico during the growing and harvesting season and return home during the winter.

“Many of our farming communities depend on these visa programs to provide the needed labor that keeps food in our grocery stores and on our plates daily,” said state Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer and Republican representing the ag-heavy areas of Duplin, Sampson and Johnston counties in a press release Thursday.

cabbage farm
Eastern NC cabbage farm. Photo courtesy Soil Science @ NC State

But this week, the U.S. State Department announced it was canceling routine immigrant and non-immigrant services at the embassy in Mexico City and other U.S. consulates throughout Mexico starting Thursday, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The new protocol will prioritize returning H-2A and H-2B workers, but would not screen first-time workers or those who require extra screening. Jackson worried the move might limit the flow of workers and prevent potential first-time farmers from trying to use the program.

“The potential disruption of visa processing and limitations to visa programs could significantly alter our state’s economy and our nation’s food supply chain,” Jackson said.

“However, I remain optimistic that we will be able to resolve these issues,” the press release continued. “Our state and federal delegation are well-aware of the potential impact on our agriculture communities and they will continue to advocate on behalf of our state’s economic backbone.”


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2 replies on “Coronavirus Today – March 18 – New risk group, scam warnings, telehealth expansion”

  1. Thanks for the great reporting. Your article – Coronavirus Today – March 18 – New risk group, scam warnings, telehealth expansion – was interesting and useful. We also appreciate the mention of SWIPEBY. We are working hard to help our neighbors (We are an NC startup) and restaurants nationwide keep their doors open. We waived all our fees and the app is free for the customer to use. It’s the right thing to do in this crisis. We are trying to help as many restaurants as we can and we are trying to get the word out. Your article today helps with that! Thank you. Keep up the good work.

  2. “People seeking information related to COVID-19 can call the state’s new 211 hotline.”
    No. The state most certainly did not set-up the 2-1-1 service. Various United Ways of North Carolina created this system. I know, because I was involved in creating the first one with United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County more than 20 years ago.

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