Hospitals spent the weekend scrambling to identify and replace counterfeit N95 respirators after learning Friday that fraudulent personal protective equipment (PPE) had been distributed throughout the state for use by medical workers.
"We spent the weekend collecting the counterfeit masks, switching out to a different mask and fit-testing our staff," said June Altaras, the senior vice president and chief quality, safety, and nursing officer for the MultiCare Health System, during a news briefing held Monday by the Washington Hospital Association (WSHA).
Cassie Sauer, WSHA president, estimated that roughly 2 million fraudulent N95 respirators were distributed to hospitals statewide. The organization has been working with hospitals since Friday to keep the counterfeit masks, which appeared to be manufactured by 3M, out of circulation. Federal investigators with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified the hospital association Friday of the counterfeit respirators.
Some hospitals were offering to test employees concerned about having been exposed to the coronavirus. Altaras said MultiCare was recommending that staffers who took care of patients with COVID-19 or patients suspected of having the disease over the past 14 days get tested.
To date, there's no evidence that these counterfeit respirators have led to more infections among medical workers.
"There has been no increase in COVID cases from hospitals around the county where staff have been wearing these masks," Sauer said.
The coronavirus pandemic has stressed supply chains of key protective gear for medical workers, sending demand skyrocketing and prices soaring. Fakes have become a big business and spawned global investigations.
The N95 respirators manufactured by 3M are capable of filtering tiny airborne particles such as the coronavirus, and they have been particularly coveted.
Altaras said MultiCare found counterfeit respirators in more than 500 of its clinical departments. Altaras said the 3M respirators are among the most popular for MultiCare clinicians because the company offers particular models that fit smaller faces.
The fit of N95 respirators is crucial. A tight, secure fit keeps airborne particles from bypassing the mask through gaps between the mask and the wearers' skin. Medical workers must be regularly fitted for each model of respirator.
Sauer said it's still not clear if the counterfeit masks provide similar protection to genuine masks.
Altaras said that most health providers in the MultiCare system have been vaccinated and that staffers have had the lowest number of coronavirus cases since May.
Sauer said there appears to be few differences between the fraudulent and genuine masks, in quality of materials and manufacturing.
"They look, they fit, they breathe like a 3M mask," Sauer said. "They have fooled everybody."
Sauer said 3M is expediting orders to Washington state hospitals for a million genuine respirators to ensure sufficient supply for medical workers.
It's not clear how the fraudulent masks got into the supply chain.
The 3M Company manufactures masks, and distributors supply them to hospitals. Sauer said the hospital association purchased 300,000 counterfeit masks from a distributor.
Many of the fraudulent respirators were not used. Sauer said 60,000 of the masks it had purchased remained in a warehouse. Others had been distributed to hospitals but had not yet been used.
Sauer said it was not yet clear if the money spent on counterfeit masks could be recouped or who might pay.
Respirators manufactured by 3M contain lot codes, which are displayed on the masks and also on the boxes in which they are shipped.
An email from Homeland Security Investigations, a division of DHS, to the hospital association indicates that the counterfeiting involved 3M respirator models 1860 and 1860S.
Lot numbers that investigators believe are counterfeit for Model 1860 include: B19029, B19206, B19240, B19130, B19133, B19155, B19161, B19206, B19314, B20010, B20013, B20016, B20018, B20020, B20021, B20022, B20025, B20060, B20119, B20245, R20025, R20102, R20144, R20150, R20294.
Lot numbers that could be counterfeit for Model 1860S include: B20522, B20659, B20670, R20522.