The Washington State Hospital Association unknowingly bought 300,000 counterfeit 3M masks in December.
The association distributed the fake masks to 40 hospitals, where healthcare workers used them.
The masks had the appropriate paperwork and passed physical inspection and testing.
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Healthcare workers in at least 40 hospitals across Washington state may have been using fake N95 masks since December.
Mask manufacturer 3M informed the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) on Friday that some respirator masks being bought and used by US hospitals were counterfeit. The Department of Homeland Security told WSHA in an email that it had "identified a vendor" that may have provided the hospital association with counterfeit 3M masks.
"It is reprehensible that counterfeiters are selling fake goods," Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of WSHA said in a press release.
CNN reported that Sauer declined to name the distributor that sold WSHA the counterfeit masks, but she confirmed it was one the association often used. The DHS email pinpointed a vendor named Q2 Solutions LLC, which the department said "may have provided WSHA with counterfeit 3M Model 1860 and 1860S N95 respirators."
WSHA bought and distributed 300,000 counterfeit masks to their 40 member hospitals for $1.4 million, NBC News reported; about 20% of those masks remain unused in warehouses, however.
Sauer told the Seattle Times that Washington hospitals statewide received, in total, 2 million fake N95s. It's unclear, she added, if the hospitals or WSHA would get their money back.
Fake masks 'fooled everybody'
Counterfeit respirators "may not be capable of providing appropriate respiratory protection to workers," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Following the Saturday announcement, hospitals across the state had to spend precious time and resources to identify, remove, and replace fake masks.
The fraudulent masks were quite convincing, and passed physical inspection and testing, according to the WSHA.
"They look, they fit, they breathe like a 3M mask," Sauer told the Seattle Times. "They have fooled everybody."
3M asked Washington state hospitals to submit samples of their N95 masks to the company's fraud department for testing, and confirmed Saturday afternoon that "at least some of the masks were not made by the company," WSHA reported.
3M assigns lot numbers to groups of masks that are made and shipped together, but the company has identified dozens of lot numbers as counterfeit. Some masks with those false numbers are among the stock purchased by WSHA and other Washington state hospitals in December.
It's unclear whether the counterfeit masks function as well as authentic N95 masks. But Sauer said "there has been no increase in COVID cases from hospitals around the county where staff have been wearing these masks."
N95 masks are highly coveted because they are the most protective face covering - the name refers to their minimum 95% efficiency at filtering aerosols. The masks seal tightly around the nose and mouth so that few viral particles can seep in or out, and they contain tangled fibers to catch airborne pathogens. That's why they're generally reserved for healthcare workers.
'Distributors with no relationship to 3M'
3M has not disclosed how it discovered that fake versions of its masks were circulating in US hospitals. The manufacturer told CNN that the respirators in question weren't authentic and had been "purchased from distributors with no relationship to 3M."
US Customs and Border Protection has seized more than 12.7 million counterfeit masks since the pandemic began.