Dozens of Washington hospitals have learned that N95 respirator masks believed to be purchased from 3M are knockoffs and were not manufactured by the company.
After receiving notice from 3M about the possibility that some masks were counterfeit, the Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) on Friday alerted the state’s hospitals and asked them to pull potentially affected masks from their supplies.
WSHA asked the state’s 115 hospitals to sort through their mask supplies and several have sent masks to 3M for testing. On Saturday, the company confirmed that some were counterfeit, the hospital association announced Sunday.
WSHA officials said they’re unsure how 3M originally discovered the fraud. And it’s unclear where the masks originated or how many masks are fakes, because hospitals around the state are still sending samples in for testing. But the issue affects the supply of somewhere between hundreds of thousands to more than a million N95 masks, said Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of WSHA.
“We are having hospitals go through all their masks and look for what they can find,” she said. She estimates the state’s hospitals spent $5 million to $8 million on the fakes.
She said it’s unclear whether the counterfeit masks are less safe than those manufactured by 3M.
The hospitals’ discovery of fraudulent masks is the latest snafu in the often frenzied, globe-spanning efforts to procure what has been an essential safeguard for health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Even as demand has spiked for masks capable of filtering tiny airborne particles, many hospitals in Washington state have remained selective about quality.
When Washington state offered last year to supplement hospitals’ supplies with N95 masks it purchased from China’s BYD, some hospitals took a pass, saying that the samples didn’t fit well. They preferred the models they’ve long used, such as masks made by 3M, over ones manufactured by BYD, an automotive conglomerate that converted some production lines to churn out protective medical gear — and received U.S. approval to sell N95 masks last year.
3M’s fraud division and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are investigating the fraudulent masks, Sauer said, but it’s unknown whether any money will be recoverable.
In the meantime, she said, 3M is expediting an order of 1 million masks to Washington to help backfill for any counterfeit supplies.
In a message to UW Medicine staff, administrators said Saturday that N95s used around Christmas were among those fraudulently labeled as 3M masks. Officials said they have since replaced suspected fakes with backup masks from the system’s stockpile. The health care system has not seen an increase in COVID-19 infections tied to the fraudulent masks, officials said.
The hospital association said it plans to offer more details at a Monday news conference.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said last week that the agency has seized at least 12 million knockoff N95 masks since the start of the pandemic.
Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Gilbert contributed to this report.