There’s a new scandal rocking the healthcare industry. Officials have confirmed that counterfeit N95 face masks have started circulating within the U.S., and several healthcare facilities have handed them out to staff by mistake!
If you have been using a 3M respirator, make sure it’s the real thing before reporting for your next shift.
The Latest N95 Scam
For almost a year now, N95 respirators have been in short supply as countries all over the world continue the fight against COVID-19. N95 masks are the preferred choice because they filter out around 95% of all airborne particles that can carry the coronavirus.
With masks still in high demand, there’s plenty of room for fraud. Authorities recently admitted that counterfeit versions have been slipping past U.S. investigators for months at international ports and customs. They believe at least 1.9 million fakes could already be in the U.S.
Officials in Washington state say they believe the fake masks went out to 40 different hospitals throughout the state, prompting staff members to start pulling them off the shelves.
The Cleveland Clinic, considered one of the most respected facilities in the country, recently acknowledged that it had accidentally distributed the counterfeit masks to staff members.
A hospital in Minnesota recently made a similar admission. Nurses at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, New Jersey say they’ve been using the fake masks for months. Employees say they were initially suspicious of the masks because they had an odd smell.
3M, the leading manufacturer of N95 masks, also listed fraudulent lot numbers online to help customers identify counterfeit masks, which only fueled the nurses’ concerns.
“People have been terrified for the last 2½ months,” said Daniel Hayes, a nurse and union vice president at the hospital. “They felt like they were taking their lives in their hands, and they don’t have anything else to wear.”
According to manufacturer 3M, more than 10 million counterfeit masks have been confiscated since the start of the pandemic. It’s a sign that producers and manufacturers are trying to take advantage of the current situation by selling cheap PPE as the real thing. The company says it has since fielded 10,500 inquiries into possible counterfeit masks.
In a letter published on January 20th, the company says it has seized fake N95s in at least six states. The letter includes tips for helping providers and workers identify fakes, so they don’t put themselves at risk on the job.
Putting Them to the Test
The nurses at Jersey Shore Medical Center shared their concerns with the folks at Kaiser Health News, who sent the possible fake masks to ECRI, a non-profit healthcare safety organization, for review.
As it turns out, the counterfeit masks were surprisingly effective – with a twist. They filtered out around 95% of the particles these kinds of masks are supposed to catch, but they also made it harder for the wearer to breathe, which can lead to fatigue on the job. The fake masks were also more likely to flip up on the face, letting in unfiltered air.
However, they were much more effective than regulators were expecting, considering other counterfeit N95s offer scant protection against the virus.
ECRI engineering director Chris Lavanchy said, “We’re kind of scratching our heads trying to understand this situation, because it’s not as black and white as I would have expected. I’ve looked at other masks we knew were counterfeit, and they usually perform terribly.”
But just because the masks filter out airborne particles doesn’t mean they’re appropriately effective.
3M spokesperson Jennifer Ehrlich said via email, “Without a proper seal and fit, respirators are not filtering [properly] — gaps could allow air to enter.”
For more answers, Hackensack Meridian Health, the company that owns the Jersey Shore hospital, says it’s working with an independent lab to validate “the quality and compliance of specific lot numbers of 3M N95 respirators the company identified as potentially problematic.”
According to those familiar with the fakes, they can be surprisingly hard to catch.
The Washington State Hospital Association purchased around 300,000 possibly fake N95s back in December. Spokesperson Beth Zborowski said, “It’s not like we just ordered them sight unseen. We had two major medical centers in Seattle…look at the quality, straps, cut them open and decide ‘this looks like it’s the real deal’ before they bought them.”
Playing “Cat and Mouse”
Most of the work starts at the border, where safety inspectors investigate equipment coming from overseas, including healthcare equipment and PPE. Customs workers say they’ve seen a flood of less-than-effective equipment coming in from China.
Michael Rose, a section chief in the global trade division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says, “It’s definitely cat and mouse.”
“Where we might get better” at intercepting counterfeits, “they can ship elsewhere, change the name of the company and keep going,” he added.
He says some counterfeits are easier to catch than others. For example, a box that just came in from China might be labeled “Made in the U.S.A”.
“I’d like to say that makes it easier, and it does, but the sheer volume of them coming in — it’s like a needle in a stack of needles,” Rose said.
As workers keep burning through PPE, hospitals have had to find alternative suppliers to keep up with demand. That means ordering from companies for the first time, which can leave them vulnerable to scams, especially in the middle of an outbreak when time is of the essence.
Administrators and hospital managers are urging providers to inspect their masks before starting their shifts. If a mask smells weird, doesn’t fit right, or keeps falling off, it may be defective or counterfeit. Fake N95s can also make it harder to breathe or lead to a burning sensation on the face. Watch out for these red flags to make sure you aren’t breathing in anything you shouldn’t.