How Big of a Scam Are 'Coronavirus Protection Kits?'

Opportunistic businesses are trying to cash in on coronavirus paranoia with suits, masks, goggles, and shoe covers.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
A Brooklyn medical supply store is selling coronavirus pandemic kits
Photo by Katie Way

Salerno Surgical Supplies’ front door was locked when I first walked up to the Brooklyn storefront around 1:30 on Tuesday afternoon to buy a coronavirus protection kit (a photo shared with VICE shows people, dressed in the kit’s coveralls, selling them from a tent outside Salerno on Monday). While I waited outside, a woman walking by did a double-take at the storefront window. Taped to it were three paper signs, advertising limited stock of CORONAVIRUS MASKS, and a $30 CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC PREP KIT. “This is crazy,” the woman said, smiling at me while she took a picture of the signs on her phone.

Signs on Salerno Surgical Supplies' front window

Photo by Hannah Smothers

As with any outbreak of any new virus, the panic surrounding novel coronavirus (or Covid-19, as the World Health Organization recently named it) has been chaotic, and like the woman on the sidewalk said, a little bit crazy. There’s certainly reason to be cautious; the WHO declared coronavirus a public health emergency) in late January, as the case number and death toll in China continues to rise. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services quickly followed suit, declaring coronavirus a domestic public health emergency a day later, even though, as of February 17, only 15 people in the country have tested positive for it. That hasn’t stopped people in states with zero suspected cases from snatching medical-grade respirator masks off store shelves, or masks from selling out on Amazon.

And now it seems some opportunistic businesses, like Salerno, are upping the ante and capitalizing on virus fears by offering unnecessary and potentially harmful “pandemic quick-kits.” There wasn’t a tent outside when I stopped by on Tuesday, but after waiting a few minutes outside, a store employee came by, and unlocked the door. When I asked if they still had the coronavirus kits, he said yes, though they’re technically for medical personnel (there are no coronavirus cases in New York, much less New York City). It was his nephew’s idea to start stocking them, he told me, as he pulled a plastic bag of medical-looking stuff from a hook on the wall, like Party City employee grabbing a requested Halloween costume for a customer. I’m definitely not a healthcare worker, but he said anybody can get one, if they feel like being extra careful.

The coronavirus pandemic quick kit

Photo by Hannah Smothers

The “pandemic quick-kit” looked like it’d been quickly assembled, itself. A sticker placed on the outside of the plastic bag was the only thing identifying it as being for coronavirus, as if the kits have been sitting in a storage facility somewhere, simply waiting for an outbreak they could presumably be used for. Inside were generic versions of all the trappings a layperson might assume are necessary in some sort of doomsday outbreak scenario: scratchy white coveralls, an N95 mask (which may not properly filter out airborne coronavirus particles), plastic goggles, disposable gloves, shoe covers, a hair net, tape to secure the coveralls, a biohazard bag, and antimicrobial hand wipes.

When I described these supplies to Trish Perl, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Texas Southwestern, she told me they sound more like something you’d expect to see healthcare workers wearing around Ebola. She added that none of this stuff is currently, or really ever, needed for civilians.

The items in the kit are only advisable for people who are “going to a costume party,” Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told VICE. (Several colleagues, upon seeing me walking around the VICE office in the suit, asked if I was wearing it “for a story” or “for coronavirus;” the answer to both questions was, “Yes.”) “Those types of kits are not recommended for the general public,” Amesh said. “They are not really going to be beneficial, and they’re likely going to put supply constraints on healthcare facilities that need them when we have a surge of patients from this virus, as it continues to spread.”

The author wearing the quick-kit supplies

Photo by Katie Way

Adalja echoed similar statements from concerned public health experts, who worry that the frenzy to cop medical masks is going to limit supply so severely, that hospital workers who need them won’t be able to get them. The same goes for the rest of the items in my pandemic quick-kit, though it’s not clear that any of this stuff will protect me in any kind of forthcoming viral invasion. Aside from Adjalja’s suggestion to use it as a costume, the best alternative use for the pandemic kit I can think of is as a Snuggie; the coveralls, despite being very thin, are extremely insulating.

At least two sellers on Amazon are offering kits similar to mine. They’re not discriminately labeled for coronavirus, but recent customer review on one—a cleanup kit for $16.99—reads, “You get everything you need to help protect yourself against the Coronavirus.” The other kit, which is almost identical to the one I got at Salerno, is much more expensive at $56.99, and is being sold by a brand-new seller called GrandSlamm.

The current recommendations for reasonable protection against coronavirus from the CDC, which were repeated by Perl and Adalja, involve getting a flu shot (it’s flu season!!) and washing your hands. The risk of the virus to the American public is still low, but even if it weren’t, there would be no need to coveralls, masks, goggles, or anything else in this kit. So if you’re tempted to buy one of these fear-mongering pandemic kits, first consider the fact they they don’t do anything, followed by the other fact that they are a complete waste of money, before you take a couple of calming breaths and remember that, while the world is ending for a great many reasons, coronavirus isn’t one of them.

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