Millions of counterfeit masks have been purchased by hospitals, medical institutions and government agencies in at least five states – and some of them have been used by healthcare workers in Washington state, announced Wednesday federal authorities by announcing an investigation.
Many of the masks were smart counterfeits, stamped with the 3M logo and shipped in boxes marked “Made in USA,” even though they were not made in the United States or by 3M, federal investigators say. .
Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, said fraudulent masks are dangerous because they may not offer the same level of protection against the coronavirus as legitimate N95 masks made by 3M.
“We don’t know if they meet the standards,” said Brian Weinhaus, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.
News of the investigation came as the intelligence arm of the Department of Homeland Security separately warned law enforcement on Wednesday that dark web criminals had since December sold counterfeit coronavirus vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration for “hundreds of dollars per dose.”
The assessment, produced by the Office of Homeland Security Intelligence and Analysis and obtained by The New York Times, said transnational criminal organizations in Latin America were probably best placed to take advantage of a vaccine shortage. legitimate to distribute counterfeit and stolen vaccines, was unclear whether they had done so.
Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said about two million counterfeit N95 masks could have been brought into the state. Hospitals in Washington state have purchased hundreds of thousands of fraudulent masks and the association itself has purchased 300,000 for its members, she said.
The masks were “very good fakes,” Ms. Sauer said, noting that they included a 3M logo, secure straps, a metal bar on top and a foam strip on the nose.
“They look, they feel, they’re okay and they breathe like a 3M mask,” she says. But they weren’t made by 3M, she said, and officials don’t know enough about them to know how protective they could be.
Many counterfeit masks have not been used in Washington, Ms. Sauer said, noting that around 60,000 masks purchased by the hospital association are still in a warehouse. But some healthcare workers used them before the association received bulletins from 3M and the federal government and started alerting hospitals to the fraud on Friday night, she said.
“It’s incredibly disheartening – really, really frustrating to find out that we have these masks,” Ms. Sauer said.
“This is reprehensible, depravity,” added Ms. Sauer. “We are horrified.”
June Altaras, senior vice president and head of quality, safety and nursing at MultiCare Health System, which includes 10 hospitals in Washington, said some of the workers in her network had used counterfeit N95 masks.
She said officials spent the past weekend collecting fakes and replacing them with legitimate masks. She said the organization had recommended that staff members who had treated Covid-19 patients be tested for the coronavirus.
“There is a special place in the afterlife for people who would do this,” Ms. Altaras said, adding that the fraudulent masks have created anxiety and fear among frontline healthcare workers. .
“Trying to make money out of this situation is really very frustrating,” Ms. Altaras said. “These clinicians have suffered enough.”
Coronavirus fraud has been a problem since the start of the pandemic, with unscrupulous businesses seeking to exploit the health crisis by selling fake test kits, treatments and personal protective equipment. Law enforcement has seized more than 10 million counterfeit respirators and hundreds of shipments of banned drugs and medical supplies, according to 3M and Homeland Security Investigations.
But the investigation into counterfeit masks, which had previously been reported by The Associated Press, shows how these deceptive products have become increasingly sophisticated, officials said.
“We are all very careful and try to verify our sources and be wary of them,” said Shane McGuire, general manager of Columbia County Health System in Washington. “But the bottom line is that the easiest to detect frauds have started to go away, and now you’re starting to see much, much better construction and much more difficult to detect PPE ”
Mr. Weinhaus, the special agent, said companies claiming to be medical suppliers buy N95 imitators, usually in China, and sell them as legitimate 3M masks. Many masks feature a reflective seal with the word “Peru,” which 3M has said it does not use outside of Latin America. Mr Weinhaus said the agency was trying to trace the respirators to the source and stop them at the border.
3M said it has helped Washington, Minnesota and other states confirm that respirators purchased from non-3M distributors were not genuine 3M products. While the company said it had increased production of N95 respirators, it also said it had also launched a global effort to fight fraud and price abuse.
“As part of this effort, 3M is working with law enforcement and customs agencies to prevent the sale and manufacture of counterfeit 3M respirators,” the company said.