Almost similar to a horrific lesson in economics theory, supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) have continued to dwindle since the start of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, while demand continues to sky-rocket. Among the most coveted PPE is the N95 mask, “a type of respirator which removes particles from the air that are breathed through it. These respirators filter out at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles.” As the CDC indicates, “N95 FFRs are capable of filtering out all types of particles, including bacteria and viruses,” making these masks eagerly sought after by not only frontline healthcare workers, but also by the general public.
The heightened frenzy to acquire these masks has become even more elevated now that new and more lethal strains of the coronavirus are emerging at alarming rates. In fact, to curtail the swift spread of these new strains, some European countries have already issued mandates that individuals must start using medical-grade masks.
But therein lies a potential route for abuse. With the unprecedented demand for these masks rising and consumers flocking to acquire them at any cost, counterfeit supplies are now a growing concern.
In recent weeks, federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the “principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” have reportedly seized millions of counterfeit N95 masks. This was done in collaboration with mask manufacturer 3M, “which shared reports of suspected counterfeits being purchased for healthcare workers.”
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stated that “These seizures illustrate the ongoing efforts of HSI, CBP, and private industry in keeping our communities and medical staff safe and free from counterfeit products […] Often, this battle is fought behind the scenes and is unknown to the general public, but you can be assured that the DHS workforce remains firmly committed to protecting the health and safety of our medical workers, the American public, and the integrity of the American economy.”
MORE FOR YOU
The press release stated that “In the past two weeks, HSI has conducted multiple criminal search warrants and seized counterfeit masks in operations conducted in five states, from coast to coast, with more enforcement actions expected in the coming weeks.”
This investigation was conducted under the tutelage of HSI’s Operation Stolen Promise, which was launched “in April 2020 to protect the Homeland from the increasing and evolving threat posed by COVID-19-related fraud and criminal activity.” The initial focus of the operation was to “Combat the illegal import and sale of counterfeit/substandard products; detect and deter financial fraud scams; and prevent the exploitation of relief and stimulus programs.” As more coronavirus vaccines and treatments are being approved, the operation is now expanding its scope further to “Counter the new and evolving public health threat posed by the illicit sale and distribution of counterfeit or unauthorized vaccines and treatments.”
The harrowing truth of this entire situation is how deeply it can affect the Covid-19 pandemic response. As PPE is vital in protecting front-line healthcare and essential workers from exposure, counterfeit masks can provide a false sense of security and potentially devastate the entire workforce, disrupting an already fragile state of affairs in healthcare.
Recognizing this potential consequence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently updated and issued guidance regarding counterfeit masks and respirators, and on how to identify NIOSH-approved respirators.
Indeed, akin to the continuing theme of the past year, this represents yet another challenge in fighting the devastating pandemic. Therefore, government authorities must continue to employ a strict threshold and take all measures necessary to identify and mitigate any efforts that may indicate fraudulent or bad-faith behavior.