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Counterfeit N95 masks are making their way into the U.S. health care system and into the hands of those working on the front lines to fight coronavirus, despite U.S. customs investigations on imports, an investigation by The Associated Press found.
N95 masks or respirators are face protectants that meet the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standards on air filtration, filtering “at least 95 percent of airborne particles.”
In recent weeks, counterfeit masks that appear visibly similar have been distributed to health care workers who rely on these shields to ensure their safety against the coronavirus, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.
But there is one distinct difference between the fraudulent masks and the authentic respirators: ear loops.
Ear loops are a cheaper way to make the masks because they are attached with glue, whereas NIOSH-authenticated N95 masks have two bands that stretch behind the head and “must be stitched, stapled of soldered,” in order to achieve a tighter seal between the mask and the face, according to The AP.
Counterfeit masks in blue and yellow boxes found by The Associated Press, unloaded in a Southern California facility, were labeled with the Chinese factory Shanghai Dasheng, which is one of the largest producers of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators in the world.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Shanghai Dasheng’s “certification numbers” are being used “without their permission," The AP reported.
And the Shaghai Dasheng website warns: “We don’t have any distributors, dealers or branch factories. Beware of counterfeit!”
But according to the investigation, shipping labels and invoices are coming directly from the Shanghai Dasheng Health Products Manufacture Company.
The Associated Press has not verified whether or not Shanghai Dasheng is making its own counterfeit masks.
In April, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE's) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) branch announced the creation of Operation Stolen Promise, an initiative to combat fraudulent and criminal behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of April 21, HSI had reported, “344 COVID-19 related seizures, including prohibited COVID-19 test kits, prohibited pharmaceuticals, counterfeit masks and more,” according to ICE's website.
But counterfeit masks are still making their way into the health care system.
N95 masks with ear loops were handed out by West Virginia officials to 50,000 health care workers and first responders, The AP found.
They were obtained through a broker that purchased them from Shanghai Dasheng Health Products Manufacture Company.
"These masks are genuine products from Shanghai Dasheng Health Products Manufacture Co. Ltd. [Dasheng] and not counterfeit,” Jeff Sandy, secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said in a memo addressing first responders who questioned the authenticity of the masks.
HSI has encouraged all fraudulent or suspected fraudulent masks to be reported immediately.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.