Fake masks delivered to Washington hospitals worked surprisingly well, officials say

Brooke Wolford
·3 min read

Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit N95 masks distributed to hospitals in Washington have proven to be effective in fighting the spread of COVID-19 but they apparently won’t be used, officials say.

“They’re good masks,” Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said during a news briefing Monday. “But we do believe Homeland Security is going to confiscate them all even if they are shown to be effective.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends N95 masks for healthcare personnel “who need protection from both airborne and fluid hazards.” Research shows they filter out at least 95% of particles in the air.

3M, which manufactures N95 masks, released a notice in February, saying there were “counterfeit masks circulating in the national supply of Personal Protective Equipment.”

The hospital association inadvertently distributed 300,000 fake masks to 40 hospitals across the state, Beth Zborowski, a spokesperson for the association, told McClatchy News in an email.

The association purchased the masks from a third party supplier, Zborowski said. There are two health care systems in the state that also ordered masks from the same supplier and the total number of fake masks distributed in Washington is 1.9 million, according to Zborowski.

“The 3M counterfeit issue is widespread and it is possible that there were other masks in the state,” Zborowski said. “We advised our members to pull any masks with the lot numbers 3M and Homeland Security flagged as potentially fraudulent.”

More than 460,000 counterfeit 3M N95 masks that were supposed to protect first responders in the Puget Sound were stopped in the Seattle area Feb. 24 by federal authorities, according to a news release.

460,000 N95 masks intended to protect Washington first responders were fake, feds say

Who made the masks?

Sauer explained some “theories” about why the masks were so effective, including that they may have actually been from a stolen 3M shipment or that an employee is working an “operation” after hours.

“The best theories about where these masks came from are, either someone working at a 3M factory stole specs and went and built them someplace else, or that they’re actual overruns in an actual 3M factory that someone is operating — like an overnight shift,” Sauer said. “It’s a sophisticated operation … maybe running a shift off hours and then selling the masks on the side.”

The association did not immediately respond to a question about the cost of the masks. Sauer said she is “not super confident” that the association will be reimbursed for the counterfeit masks.

“It’s really disappointing,” she said.

3M has agreed to expedite a shipment of a million masks to Washington hospitals for free, according to Sauer.

Millions of masks confiscated

N95 masks are still hard to find and the U.S. has struggled with a shortage in Personal Protective Equipment since the beginning of the pandemic.

Criminal organizations have capitalized on the COVID-19 pandemic by selling counterfeit PPE products, Brian Humphrey, according to a news release last month from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“During a time that we are relying on masks and other personal protective equipment to protect our first responders, health care providers, and members of the public, it is disheartening that these items can sometimes be fraudulent,” Donald Voiret, special agent in charge at the FBI’s Seattle field office, said in the release.

Homeland Security says it has seized nearly 10 million counterfeit 3M N95 respirators across the country in the last several weeks. Many of these masks were produced in other countries.