Washington State Hospital Association and the University of Washington have accused a Texas company of selling bogus N95 masks and swindling them out of $4 million.
The two organizations filed a suit Thursday against CJFS Corporation in King County Superior Court on the grounds that it sold them 5,000 cases of counterfeit 3M masks for $4 million back in fall 2020.
The masks came with appropriate paperwork and passed physical inspection and testing before they were distributed to 40 hospitals. WSHA bought about 600 cases for $1.4 million, while UW Medicine spent $2.6 million on about 4,700 cases. The masks for UW Medicine arrived in early December 2020. When employees noticed manufacturing and expiration dates on some packages were the same, CJFS said it was a printing error and sent replacements. WSHA received its shipment later in the month, according to the Seattle Times
A month later, 3M issued a warning about counterfeit masks that raised another red flag. In its warning, 3M listed lot codes belonging to specific fake mask models not made by it. These codes matched the ones WSHA and WU Medicine received. The two contacted 3M, which confirmed that CJFS sold counterfeit masks. They later received a notice of a counterfeit product alert from CJFS.
CJFS has so far provided no refund or sent genuine masks to either organization, according to the complaint. While it met with WSHA to discuss the masks in March 2021, it has not responded to attempts at mediation since, says Taya Briley, vice president of the hospital association.
“Making sure that our healthcare 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,” she told the Seattle Times. “The fact that the supply chain has been so unable to keep up with demand has created these opportunities for fraudulent mask makers to be present in the supply chain.”
While the state hospital association was able to obtain genuine masks from 3M directly and infections are now going down, obtaining masks is still a challenge for providers. Further exacerbating the situation is the risk of buying counterfeit masks.
Back in October, the Cleveland Clinic was scammed out of $1.8 million
for 400,000 N95s it ordered from a Pennsylvania company. The masks were found to be fake only after the healthcare system had distributed more than 50,000 to healthcare workers and only after some of these workers on high-risk wards tested positive.
The whole City of Houston fell victim to a scam
that cost it roughly $1.7 million. The masks were discovered to be fake before they could be used, but the funds to pay for them were seized by federal authorities after it investigated the company and were not returned to the city.
In the early days of the pandemic, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) had conducted over 500 seizures and made 11 arrests
by May 2020 of individuals and companies that tried to sell faulty materials and resources to hospitals for protection against the virus. These actions not only pertained to faulty masks but also PPE, mislabeled medicines and fake COVID-19 tests and cures.
“These are really bad times for people who are out there trying to do the right thing and be helpful, and they end up being exploited,” Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations at HSI, told AP at the time.
Even fake COVID testing sites have been a problem. One company in Washington state is being investigated for allegedly faking test results and lying to patients, reports the Seattle Times
Based in Illinois, the Center for COVID Control has at least 13 sites in Washington and is alleged to have faked and delayed test results and failed to properly store test samples. In a separate suit, the state says that the Center for COVID Control stored tests in garbage bags for more than a week, rather than refrigerating them; backdated sample-collection dates to ensure stale samples would still be processed; and instructed employees to “lie to patients on a daily basis” when Washington residents asked about delayed results.
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.”
The federal government and FDA are also trying to weed out fake PPE and mask sellers, including revoking authorization for Chinese-made KN95s and working with customs officials to stop banned imports. Many also use Amazon to facilitate their scams.
The CDC has listed guidelines and pointers for differentiating real from fake masks. Among these differences are no markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator; no approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband; no NIOSH markings or NIOSH spelled incorrectly; and the filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands.