Hospitals across Washington state were alerted Friday to pull select N95 masks off their shelves and send them for analysis after an investigation uncovered knockoffs, said the state’s hospital association.
The fake masks closely resemble N95 masks manufactured by a company called 3M. The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) and other hospital executives told reporters on a call Monday that 3M’s masks are typically in high demand because they come in smaller sizes and allow for a snug fit around the face.
WSHA estimates there are over 2 million fake N95s that were likely acquired by the state’s hospitals, 300,000 of which were bought by WSHA and distributed to dozens of hospitals. While many hospitals reported not using the masks, others did, and 60,000 of WSHA's masks are still in a warehouse.
"3M has recently assisted Washington State authorities in confirming that N95 respirators purchased from distributors with no relationship to 3M are not authentic 3M products," the manufacturer wrote to Fox News in an email. "3M recommends purchasing our products only from a 3M authorized distributor."
Cassie Sauer, president and chief executive officer of WSHA, said frauds have become quite adept in creating fradulent personal protective equipment (PPE), and some health care workers who donned the fake N95s didn’t even notice a difference.
"They look, they feel, they fit and they breathe like a 3M mask," Sauer said, displaying one of the knockoffs over a call. Sauer said it remains unclear what level of protection the knockoffs offer, but was encouraged about an apparent lack of increase in coronavirus infections in hospitals across the country where the knockoffs were in use.
"People keep asking us, 'How protective are they?' and we don't know the answer to that, but we know that they're really good fakes," she said.
In a related press release sent to Fox News, Sauer said "these masks had the appropriate paperwork and passed physical inspection and testing."
Sauer explained that WSHA purchased the masks from distributors and said WSHA "absolutely believed they were 3M masks." A fact sheet on 3M’s website advises buying "products only from a 3M authorized distributor or dealer" to avoid counterfeit.
Sauer said officials worked to get the knockoffs out of the state’s circulation during the weekend, and legal teams will soon meet to determine if the money spent on the masks can be recouped, which is in the millions. She noted ongoing conversations with the Department of Homeland Security and the manufacturer, 3M.
"The anger level over the weekend was incredibly high," she said. "It’s reprehensible, depravity. We’re horrified."
As of Monday afternoon, WSHA couldn't identify the third-party vendor at fault but said Homeland Security is actively investigating the issue.
Other health officials echoed Sauer’s anger over the call Monday.
"I will to say to quote one of my colleagues, Cassie Sauer, ‘there’s a special place in the afterlife for people who would do this,’" June Altaras, nurse and senior vice president of MultiCare Health System, told reporters. "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."
Altaras, speaking on behalf of a network spanning 10 hospitals in Washington, said masks were pulled from over 500 different departments. "They were broadly utilized across our organization," she said.
The association has since ordered 1 million masks directly from 3M, which agreed to expedite the order in light of the fraud.
"We are going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but I feel like...the frauds are getting better and better and better, they’re harder to spot and that’s quite worrisome," Sauer said.