The Washington State Hospital Association and the University of Washington are suing a Texas company for allegedly selling them millions of dollars’ worth of counterfeit N95 masks early in the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a lawsuit filed Thursday in King County Superior Court, the first year of the pandemic left hospitals and health care organizations scrambling to get their hands on enough personal protective equipment for staffers, including medical masks, gowns and gloves that had fallen into short supply at a critical time.
In fall 2020, the hospital association and UW Medicine learned that a Dallas company called CJFS Corp. was selling 3M-brand N95 masks, the complaint says. WSHA bought about 600 cases of 3M’s 1860-model N95 masks for $1.4 million, while UW Medicine bought about 4,700 cases of 1860-model and 1860S-model N95 masks for $2.6 million, according to the complaint.
UW Medicine’s shipment of masks arrived in early December 2020, but employees soon noticed the manufacture and expiration dates printed on some of the packages were the same. When UW Medicine asked CJFS about the dates, the company acknowledged it was a “printing error” and agreed to replace the masks.
UW Medicine kept about 85,000 of the 1860S-model masks that didn’t have an incorrect expiration date, and returned the affected masks to CJFS. About two weeks later, UW Medicine received replacements from CJFS.
Near the end of December, WSHA received its shipment of masks and began distributing them to hospitals.
In January 2021, however, 3M — one of the largest global producers of N95 masks — issued a statement warning customers and medical workers to be aware of counterfeit masks that had started circulating in the nation’s PPE supply. In the statement, 3M listed lot codes that corresponded to specific fake mask models not made by the company, which matched the ones WSHA and UW Medicine had received.
After realizing the masks they received were fake, WSHA and UW Medicine reached out to 3M, which confirmed the masks CJFS sold were not genuine, and later received a notice of counterfeit product alert from CJFS, according to the complaint.
“It is undisputed that CJFS provided counterfeit N95 masks to WSHA and [UW Medicine],” the lawsuit says.
WSHA CEO Cassie Sauer said in a statement at the time that the masks had the appropriate paperwork and passed physical inspection and testing before being sent out to hospitals. In total, 40 hospitals received the fraudulent masks, Taya Briley, vice president of the hospital association, said Friday.
“Making sure that our health care workers have a good supply of the right kind of PPE to do this work is really important and our national supply chain has struggled throughout the pandemic to provide adequate amounts of PPE,” Briley said. “The fact that the supply chain has been so unable to keep up with demand had created these opportunities for fraudulent mask makers to be present in the supply chain.”
Still, the complaint says, CJFS has yet to provide a refund or send genuine masks to WSHA and UW Medicine.
Although CJFS met with WSHA to discuss the masks in March 2021, the company hasn’t been responsive since, despite attempts for mediation, according to Briley.
“By taking this next step, we hope to dissuade more fraudulent masks from entering the market,” she said. “It’s terrible. The whole point is to protect workers.”
The president of CJFS did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Washington isn’t the only state that’s been battling counterfeit mask operations throughout the pandemic. Federal authorities, including the Food and Drug Administration, have said they’re trying to crack down on fake PPE — much of it sold on Amazon — and have revoked authorization for Chinese-made KN95s. They also continue to work with customs officials to stop banned imports, according to The New York Times.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, border agents have seized some 34 million counterfeit masks.
The CDC recommends that people be cautious of price swings and products that are listed as “legitimate” or “genuine,” and to look at reviews. Other indicators of counterfeit masks could also include markings on the face piece, no approval (TC) number, no markings from the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (or “NIOSH” is incorrectly spelled) or claims that they’ve been approved for children (NIOSH does not approve any type of respiratory protection for children).
Fraudulent coronavirus testing sites have also popped up in the U.S. throughout the past two years, including in Washington state, where one company is being investigated for allegedly faking test results and lying to patients.
The testing centers “threatened the health and safety of our communities,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement this week. “They must be held accountable.”
Distributing enough masks for health care workers and community members still remains a challenge as the spread of the omicron variant keeps demand for PPE high, despite slowing infection rates, Briley said.
The state hospital association recently ordered more N95 masks for hospital workers, but fortunately was able to purchase them directly from 3M this time, Briley said.
“But still, it’s like, ‘Here we go again,’ ” she said. “This is absolutely a nationwide problem.”