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Federal Officials Distribute Medical Gear Seized in Price-Gouging Investigation

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  • Federal agents seized essential medical gear including 192,000 N95 respirator masks, 130,000 surgical masks, 598,000 medical grade gloves, from a man in Brooklyn, NY hoarding and reselling supplies at a 700% mark up.
  • When agents confronted the man, he allegedly lied about his crimes and coughed towards them, saying he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • He was charged with assaulting federal officers and making false statements to law enforcement. 
  • Officials took possession of the items and distributed them to NY and NJ health departments, saying they will pay the man “fair market value” for the goods. 

Supplies Seized

Federal officials said Thursday that they seized thousands of masks and other essential medical supplies from an alleged hoarder in Brooklyn this week, which they redistributed to health departments in New York and New Jersey. 

The supplies, taken from 43-year-old Baruch Feldheim, included 192,000 N95 respirator masks, 130,000 surgical masks, 598,000 medical grade gloves, surgical gowns, disinfectant towels, hand sanitizer, and spray disinfectant.

The Department of Justice and Health and Human Services said the equipment was seized by a task force created to crack down on coronavirus-related hoarding and price gouging.

The Investigation

While personal protective equipment, known as PPE, is in high demand all over the world, it is especially needed in New York and New Jersey, where the most coronavirus cases have been reported in the United States. 

The investigation against Feldheim came after a New Jersey doctor told NBC News in an interview last month that because of the severe supply shortages, he resorted to buying protective equipment on the black market at an extremely high price. 

Federal agents approached the doctor for more information and he directed them to a WhatsApp group where sales were being facilitated. The doctor told investigators Feldheim charged him $12,000 for a large order of maks, gowns, gloves, and hazmat gear. The F.B.I described that price as a 700% markup.

The doctor told investigators that when he went to pick up his order at an auto repair shop in Irvington, N.J., he saw enough pallets of medical gear, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, and surgical equipment to supply an entire hospital. FBI agents even said they themselves saw people walking away from Feldheim’s residence with boxes or bags of what appeared to be medical supplies. 

“It’s the most un-American thing I can think of right now, in a time of crisis, for anybody to take materials that they know are needed on the front line and take them out of the supply chain, hide them and try to sell them at a markup,” Craig Carpenito, the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey who was tapped by the attorney general last week to lead the task force, told CNN

Feldheim Charges

Federal agents first confronted Feldheim outside his home Sunday, where he reportedly lied about owning and selling large quantities of supplies. He also allegedly coughed towards the agents, telling them he had tested positive for the virus, authorities said. 

The following day, Justice Department prosecutors in Newark charged Feldheim with assaulting federal officers and making false statements to law enforcement. Carpenito told CNN prosecutors were still investigating and considering charges of hoarding and price gouging under the Defense Production Act.

Feildheim’s defense lawyer, James Moriarty, denied the charges and said his client had not entered a plea yet, according to Reuters. 

As far as the seized goods, Health and Human Services said it used its Defense Production Act authority to take possession of the items for the US government and will pay Feldheim the “fair market value” for them. The materials were inspected and redistributed to the health departments of New York State, New Jersey, and New York City, the authorities said.

In a message sent to his F.B.I. colleagues sent Thursday, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Newark office, Gregory W. Ehrie, said the efforts of law enforcement officers were making a difference during the healthcare crisis.

“It is gratifying when the challenging and risky work of our agents has such positive and tangible results,” Ehrie wrote. 

“Profiteers need to be aware that we are looking for them and will do whatever necessary to help stem the tide of this crisis. The public needs to know that they are a force multiplier in our efforts and should bring us any information that could curtail criminal activity.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Reuters) (Fox News

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Medical Workers Sign Letter Urging Spotify to Combat Misinformation, Citing Joe Rogan

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The letter accused Spotify of “enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research.”


Doctors and Medical Professionals Sign Letter to Spotify

A group of 270 doctors, scientists, and other medical workers signed an open letter to Spotify this week urging the audio platform to implement a misinformation policy, specifically citing false claims made on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. 

Rogan has faced no shortage of backlash over the last year for promoting vaccine misinformation on his show, which airs exclusively on Spotify. Most recently, he invited Dr. Robert Malone on a Dec. 31 episode that has since been widely criticized by health experts. 

Dr. Malone was banned from Twitter for promoting COVID-19 misinformation. According to the medical experts who signed the letter, he “used the JRE platform to further promote numerous baseless claims, including several falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and an unfounded theory that societal leaders have ‘hypnotized’ the public.”

“Notably, Dr. Malone is one of two recent JRE guests who has compared pandemic policies to the Holocaust,” the letter continued. “These actions are not only objectionable and offensive, but also medically and culturally dangerous.”

Joe Rogan’s History of COVID-19 Misinformation

Rogan sparked swift criticism himself in the spring of 2021 when he discouraged young people from taking the COVID-19 vaccine. He also falsely equated mRNA vaccines to “gene therapy” and incorrectly stated that vaccines cause super mutations of the virus. He took ivermectin after testing positive for the virus in September, despite the fact that the drug is not approved as a treatment for COVID.

“By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals,” the doctors and medical workers wrote. 

“We are calling on Spotify to take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform,” they continued. “With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence. Though Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

Rolling Stone was the first outlet to report on the letter from the medical professionals. Dr. Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, was among the signees. She told the magazine that Rogan is “a menace to public health.”

“These are fringe ideas not backed in science, and having it on a huge platform makes it seem there are two sides to this issue,” she said. “And there are really not.”

Spotify had not responded to the letter as of Thursday.

See what others are saying: (Rolling Stone) (Deadline) (Insider)

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Data Shows Omicron May be Peaking in the U.S.

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In some cities that were first hit by the surge, new cases are starting to flatten and decline.


New Cases Flattening

After weeks of recording-breaking cases driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, public health officials say that new COVID infections seem to be slowing in the parts of the country that were hit the hardest earlier on.

Following a more than twentyfold rise in December, cases in New York City have flattened out in recent days. 

New infections have even begun to fall slightly in some states, like Maryland and New Jersey. In Boston, the levels of COVID in wastewater — which has been a top indicator of case trends in the past — have dropped by nearly 40% since the first of the year.

Overall, federal data has shown a steep decline in COVID-related emergency room visits in the Northeast, and the rest of the country appears to be following a similar track.

Data from other countries signals the potential for a steep decline in cases following the swift and unprecedented surge.

According to figures from South Africa, where the variant was first detected, cases rose at an incredibly shocking rate for about a month but peaked quickly in mid-December. Since then, new infections have plummeted by around 70%.

In the U.K., which has typically been a map for how U.S. cases will trend, infections are also beginning to fall after peaking around New Year’s and then flattening for about a week.

Concerns Remain 

Despite these recent trends, experts say it is still too early to say if cases in the U.S. will decline as rapidly as they did in South Africa and the parts of the U.K. that were first hit. 

While new infections may seem to be peaking in the cities that saw the first surges, caseloads continue to climb in most parts of the country. 

Meanwhile, hospitals are overwhelmed and health resources are still strained because of the high volume of cases hitting all at once.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Wall Street Journal)

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COVID-Driven School Closures Top Record Highs, But Many Remain Open

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While some districts have implemented protective measures, many teachers say they fall short.


Schools Respond to Omicron Surge

U.S. COVID cases, driven by the omicron variant, are continuously topping new record highs, posing difficult questions for schools resuming after winter break.

According to Burbio, a data firm that tracks school closures, at least 5,409 public schools canceled classes or moved to remote learning by the end of last week due to COVID — more than triple the number at the end of December.

That is still only a fraction of the nation’s 130,000 schools, and many of the biggest school districts in the country are still insisting that students come into the classroom.

Los Angeles, which is home to the second-biggest district, is requiring that students at least test negative before they return to school this week.

In the biggest district of New York City, classes have already resumed following winter break. Although the city has said it will double random tests and send home more kits, students were not required to provide negative results.

Teachers Protest In-Person Learning

Teachers in other major districts have protested the local government’s decisions to stay open.

One of the most closely watched battles is in Chicago, where students on Monday missed their fourth consecutive day of school due to a feud between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D).

Last week, the union voted to return to remote learning in defiance of a city-wide order mandating they teach in-person, citing inadequate COVID-19 protections. Lightfoot claimed the conditions were fine and that students were safe, despite record surges, instead opting to cancel classes altogether while the fight plays out.

On Sunday, the union said it was “still far apart” from making any kind of agreement with public school officials after Lightfoot rejected their demands.

Lightfoot, for her part, has said she remains “hopeful” a deal could be reached, but she also stirred up the union by accusing teachers of staging an “illegal walkout” and claiming they “abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families.”

Meanwhile, teachers in other school districts have begun to emulate the tactics in Chicago.

On Friday, teachers in Oakland, California staged a “sick-out,” promoting 12 schools serving thousands of students to close.

See what others are saying: (The Chicago Tribune) (CNN) (The New York Times)

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