Fake N95 masks plague hospitals across Washington state


Mask maker 3M sent out an alert that counterfeit N95 masks have entered the distribution chain nationwide

Just when healthcare workers across Washington state thought they could at least rely on a consistent supply of quality protective equipment comes news that hundreds of thousands of counterfeit N95 masks have made their way into the nation’s supply chain.

“The anger level over the weekend was incredibly high,” said Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington state Hospital Association (WSHA) during a press availability Monday morning. “It’s just reprehensible. It’s depravity. We’re horrified.”

A counterfeit 3M N95 mask that was shipped to the Washington State Hospital Association. Photo courtesy Washington State Hospital Association
A counterfeit 3M N95 mask that was shipped to the Washington State Hospital Association. Photo courtesy Washington State Hospital Association

Sauer says the issue came to light following an alert from 3M, one of the primary manufacturers of N95 masks, that counterfeit products may be circulating in the national supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

WSHA submitted some of their masks to 3M for analysts and, late on Saturday, received confirmation that the masks were not authentic.

“These masks had the appropriate paperwork and passed physical inspection and testing,” said Sauer, holding up one of the masks during a Zoom call. “These N95s are precious resources we need to keep staff safe. It is reprehensible that counterfeiters are selling fake goods.”

Sauer said WSHA alone had purchased 300,000 of those masks, and at least 60,000 of them remain in the warehouse. It’s unknown how many of them were actually in use.

Boxes of counterfeit N95 masks looked nearly identical to legitimate ones from 3M. Photo courtesy Washington State Hospital Association
Boxes of counterfeit N95 masks looked nearly identical to legitimate ones from 3M. Photo courtesy Washington State Hospital Association

June Altaras, RN, a senior vice president and chief quality, safety, and nursing officer for MultiCare Health System in the Puget Sound area, said the discovery reintroduces an element of stress and uncertainty for frontline workers.

“Second only to the devastation to patients and their families that are impacted by COVID has been, over the last year, trying to help our clinicians and staff decrease their fear and anxiety,” said Altaras. “And to have to reintroduce fear and anxiety to our clinicians who are out there taking care of their communities, because someone chose to try to make money off of this situation is really highly frustrating. These clinicians have been through enough.”

Sauer said WSHA would be handing over some of the masks to the Department of Homeland Security, which is investigating where they might have come from.

“Counterfeit PPE has been around since COVID started really, it’s not a new issue,” added Shane McGuire, CEO of Columbia County Health System in Dayton. “I think we’re all very careful and try to check our sources and be very wary of it.”

“The frauds are getting better and better and better, and they’re harder to spot,” said Sauer. “And that’s quite worrisome.”

People who used the counterfeit masks say they felt almost indistinguishable from legitimate N95 masks by 3M. Photo courtesy Washington State Hospital Association
People who used the counterfeit masks say they felt almost indistinguishable from legitimate N95 masks by 3M. Photo courtesy Washington State Hospital Association

The 3M masks are especially popular amongst female healthcare workers, said Sauer, because they come in a smaller size that fits better. 

Sauer said the plan is to conduct COVID-19 testing amongst workers who’ve been known to be wearing the counterfeit masks, though to date there have been no apparent outbreaks linked to their use.

“We are recommending to our staff that if they took care of a COVID-positive or a rule out COVID patient within the last 14 days they receive testing,” said Altaras. “Of course we will provide that for them. And, even if they didn’t take care of someone, if someone just really feels that they want to be tested, we will also support them in that decision.”

Sauer says it’s unclear at this point if WSHA or the Department of Health and anyone else who bought the counterfeit masks will be able to get a refund. Currently, they are working to determine which vendors the masks came from, and where they may have gotten them.

“They’re in the supply chain, and it looks like a number of distributors got them,” said Sauer. “Who made them is unclear. I think this is something that Homeland Security is going to be working on.”

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