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Mask frauds hits Washington hospitals; some workers were using counterfeit N95 respirators

Dr. Deborah Birx, former White House coronavirus response coordinator, holds a 3M N95 mask as she and then-Vice President Mike Pence visit 3M headquarters last March in Maplewood, Minn. (Glen Stubbe)

Hospitals across the state are reeling following the discovery that 2 million protective masks purchased to protect health care workers from COVID-19 were fakes.

Some of the counterfeit N95 masks were sent to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, but were not used.

“The anger level over the weekend was incredibly high,” said Cassie Sauer, chief administrative officer of the Washington State Hospital Association. “It’s reprehensible, depravity. We’re horrified.”

The Department of Homeland Security alerted the hospital association on Friday that some of the N95 masks they ordered for their members were not legitimate. The association then determined dozens of hospitals statewide were also defrauded. Some hospitals are waiting for the masks in question to be analyzed for authenticity by medical supply manufacturer 3M.

The association had purchased about 300,000 of these masks. Some were sent to hospitals, but those have now been pulled from supply shelves.

3M produces masks and then distributors sell them. Homeland Security has identified the vendor that sold the counterfeit masks, which even included faked 3M logos, but it remains unclear who made them.

Hospitals were asked to submit their masks to 3M for inspection, and at least some of them were deemed to not be authentic.

The company flagged the lot and model codes for the counterfeit masks so hospitals could check their supplies. MultiCare had to clear about 500,000 counterfeit masks out of multiple locations this weekend.

Some of the masks had already been used in South Sound MultiCare locations, and staff members who used them are being encouraged to take COVID-19 tests. The counterfeit masks were not used at any Inland Northwest MultiCare locations, however, according to spokesman Kevin Maloney.

“MultiCare is committed to providing authentic and safe PPE to our team members and we will fully investigate this situation,” a statement from MultiCare says. “We are working closely with WSHA, our fellow impacted hospitals in Washington, the Dept. of Homeland Security and 3M’s fraud department to conduct testing and verification on these masks.”

June Altaras, senior vice president at MultiCare, said the good news is that many staff members have already been fully vaccinated for the virus. MultiCare hospitals have enough PPE stocked to replace the counterfeits, Altaras said.

Still, the recall shook the confidence of an already weary health care workforce.

“To have to reintroduce fear and anxiety to our clinicians who are out there taking care of our communities because someone chose to try to make money off of this situation is really highly frustrating,” Altaras told reporters Monday. “These clinicians have been through enough; this is really very disappointing.”

Sacred Heart Medical Center was able to remove a box of the counterfeit masks before they were used by staff, according to hospital spokeswoman Beth Hegde.

“This situation does not negatively impact our inventory (or) supply of N95 masks and our current PPE supply remains steady,” Hegde said in a statement. “We are dismayed that people engage in such behavior. We are working closely with WSHA and other hospital systems around the state to stay on top of this issue and ensure that our caregivers are safe.”

Counterfeit personal protective equipment has been a problem during the pandemic, but the fake 3M masks in question are convincing, with 3M stamps and markings on the masks looking legitimate. Sauer said that so far, hospitals that had used the counterfeits have not reported an increase in COVID-19 cases, but it is not clear how effective the counterfeits are at preventing particle transmission.

“We don’t know how protective they are, but we know they are good fakes,” Sauer said.

To replenish its stock, the hospital association purchased one million 3M N95 masks directly from the company and have been assured that the shipment will be expedited. Sauer said hospitals are helping out others if they need more masks in the interim after having to clear out the counterfeits.

The 3M masks are popular with hospital staff, Altaras said, because they seal well and fit on everyone, including people with smaller faces. Altaras said they were used widely in hundreds of departments in MultiCare hospitals statewide.

The 3M N95 respirators have a moisture barrier built in, which is required for providers doing certain procedures, including anything that includes aerosolizing.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.