Coronavirus Ripoff Season Is Here. And a Kid Got Burned.

Olivia Messer
River Vale Police Department
River Vale Police Department

Police in New Jersey seized bottles of “spray sanitizer” from a 7-Eleven location on Monday night after a woman said her 10-year-old son suffered first-degree burns to his arm and leg.

“While further investigation is underway, our first priority is to make the public aware that they should not use this item,” River Vale police Lieutenant John DeVoe said in a statement. “From the information that we received, approximately one dozen of the bottles were sold to customers today.”

The 3-ounce, mini-sprayer bottles appeared to be homemade in response to exploding demand for sanitizing products in the face of the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak, according to the boy’s mother, 40-year-old Lauren Michele Gehm. She said her son Dylan was treated at a local emergency room after using the substance, telling NBC New York he was covered in ointment and put on an IV.

“This was sold to a bunch of kids and they innocently sprayed it and now we are here with (my son) in major pain,” she wrote on Facebook.

Gehm’s attorney, Jim Lynch, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that Dylan’s friends purchased the bottles, which were on display at the store’s check-out counter.

“They sprayed each other with it, and my client was sprayed on the legs and the arms and had a very bad reaction to it, like a chemical burn,” he said.

Lynch said the other kids also had reactions, but none were as severe as Dylan’s.

QAnon-ers’ Magic Cure for Coronavirus: Just Drink Bleach!

Gehm also posted a label from the bottle, which claimed it included octyl decyl dimethyl ammonium chloride and dioctyl dimethyl ammonium chloride, which can cause severe skin burns, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, as reported by NJ Advance Media.

The 7-Eleven location in question did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “The safety and well-being of 7-Eleven customers is of utmost importance and our hearts are with this young man at this time,” the company said in a statement to The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “This store is owned by a 7-Eleven Franchisee. Franchisees operate as independent business owners and are obligated to comply with all federal, state, and local laws related to the operations of their stores.”

The company also noted it was cooperating with law enforcement and urged anyone who believed they purchased the product to contact local health authorities.

The episode in New Jersey suggested the steady drumbeat of official warnings about potential scams tied to the coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks were warranted. And thanks to new questions arising virtually every day about how the government has responded to the deadly disease, experts said, it should come as no surprise that grifters might find a receptive audience in a public hungry for answers of any kind.

“There are no magic cures,” said Professor Eyal Leshem, a global expert on infectious diseases and the director of the Institute for Travel and Tropical Medicine at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, Tel HaShomer. “Vaccine development is expected to take months, and there is no guarantee an effective vaccine will be available in the near future.”

The same day Gehm’s son was reportedly getting treated for burns, the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced they sent warning letters to seven companies “allegedly selling unapproved products that may violate federal law by making deceptive or scientifically unsupported claims about their ability to treat coronavirus.”

The agencies sent the letters to Vital Silver, Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd., N-ergetics, GuruNanda, LLC, Vivify Holistic Clinic, Herbal Amy LLC, and The Jim Bakker Show, the latter of which also received a cease-and-desist from New York Attorney General Letitia James. Bakker was previously convicted in 1989 on multiple counts of fraud. The companies have two days to respond to the warning letter with specific steps to correct the violations, the FTC and FDA said. (The Daily Beast reported in January that promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theory had urged fans to protect themselves by drinking dangerous bleach.)

“The recipients are companies that advertise products—including teas, essential oils, and colloidal silver—as able to treat or prevent coronavirus,” said a statement from the agencies. “There are no approved vaccines, drugs, or investigational products currently available to treat or prevent the virus.”

Major retailers and online marketplaces have already removed more than three dozen listings of fraudulent treatment products, according to the FDA. And online retailers like Amazon have pulled over a million products purporting to treat or cure COVID-19. (Still, a cursory search for coronavirus on the platform Tuesday produced results ranging from wellness-infused guides to reducing COVID-19 symptoms to deeply unhinged survival literature.)

“There already is a high level of anxiety over the potential spread of coronavirus,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “What we don’t need in this situation are companies preying on consumers by promoting products with fraudulent prevention and treatment claims. These warning letters are just the first step. We’re prepared to take enforcement actions against companies that continue to market this type of scam.”

It may not be exciting, but Leshem emphasized that the “most effective” measures simply include following the recommendations repeatedly made by public health officials: wash your hands, and try to stay away from anyone who is sick.

Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles who previously worked for the CDC, said that while “there’s no playbook” for epidemic response, the lack of transparency and consistency in messaging from top health leaders in the U.S. “has caused some level of panic.”

“It is a public health crisis because of the amount of fear and concern people have,” said Klausner.

The antidote?

“There needs to be consistency, regularity, and calm voices who know what they’re talking about,” he said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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