by John R. Fischer
, Senior Reporter | May 18, 2020
A rise in counterfeit masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has cost providers across the U.S. millions and is putting lives at risk.
More than 500 seizures and 11 arrests have been made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in what the Associated Press reports
is being called Operation Stolen Promise, for not just masks and PPE but mislabeled medicines and fake COVID-19 tests and cures.
“It’s just unprecedented,” Steve Francis, assistant director for global trade investigations at HSI, told AP. “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.”
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The issue caught AP’s attention after a Los Angeles shipment of masks in late March were found to be fake. Whereas authentic ones have bands stitched, soldered or stapled into the mask that stretch across the back of the head for a tighter fit, the ones delivered had ear loops and glued on straps. Such masks allow tiny airborne droplets carrying the virus to get sucked through cracks, thereby spreading the disease.
“Fluid follows the path of least resistance: If someone is breathing and the respirator doesn’t have a good fit, it will just go around,” infectious disease expert Shawn Gibbs, the dean of Texas A&M University’s school of public health, told AP.
The masks were produced at a Chinese factory called Shanghai Dasheng and bore a stamp that made them look as though approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, issued an alert the day before, that any N95 masks with ear loops from Shanghai Dasheng were counterfeit.
One organization to receive these masks was Direct Relief, an international humanitarian aid organization in Southern California. Initially thinking the factory sent the wrong mask model, CEO Thomas Tighe alerted the federal government of the issue after reading the CDC’s warning.
“It’s a little scary that it had gone through what we understood was an aggressive customs investigation for export, and an aggressive customs import by the U.S., and still got through,” CEO Thomas Tighe told AP. “It’s been a real lesson.”
The CDC is currently discussing authenticity issues with Shanghai Dasheng, which is one of a small number of Chinese companies certified to make NIOSH-approved U.S. medical grade N95s. The factory has bumped daily mask production from 40,000 to 70,000 and intends to eventually manufacture them at a rate of 200,000. “We don’t have any distributors, dealers or branch factories. Beware of counterfeit,” the company posted on its website.