WASHINGTON (AP) — On a day when COVID-19 cases soared, healthcare supplies were scarce and an anguished doctor warned he was being sent to war without bullets, a cargo plane landed at the Los Angeles International Airport, supposedly loaded with the ammo doctors and nurses were begging for: some of the first N95 medical masks to reach the U.S. in almost six weeks.
Already healthcare workers who lacked the crucial protection had caught COVID-19 after treating patients infected with the highly contagious new coronavirus. That very day an emergency room doctor who earlier texted a friend that he felt unsafe without protective supplies or an N95 mask, died of the infection. It was the first such death reported in the U.S., according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.
But the shipment arriving that night in late March wasn’t going to solve the problem. An Associated Press investigation has found those masks were counterfeits — as are millions of medical masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies being used in hospitals across the country, putting lives at risk.
Before the pandemic, federal trade law enforcement agencies were focused on busting knockoffs such as luxury goods and computer software, mostly from China. As America fell sick, the mission shifted to medical supplies. To date, Operation Stolen Promise, spearheaded by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, has netted 11 arrests and 519 seizures. And yet counterfeit goods continue to pour in — not just masks, but also mislabeled medicines, and fake COVID-19 tests and cures, according to the agency.
“It’s just unprecedented,” said Steve Francis, HSI’s assistant director for global trade investigations. “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.”
The story of how one brand of counterfeits has infiltrated America’s supply chains illustrates how the lack of coordination amid massive shortages has plunged the country’s medical system into chaos.
AP identified the counterfeit masks when reviewing film of the Los Angeles shipment. The telltale sign: these masks had ear loops, while authentic ones have bands that stretch across the back of the head, making for a tighter fit.
The blue and yellow boxes being unloaded in a Southern California warehouse bore the name of the Chinese factory Shanghai Dasheng. The masks inside were stamped as if approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — signifying they had been certified by the U.S. government as safe for workers in health care settings. N95 masks filter out 95% of all airborne particles, including ones too tiny to be blocked by looser fitting surgical masks.
But the day before they arrived, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a very specific warning: all Shanghai Dasheng N95 masks with ear loops were counterfeit.
Ear loop masks are less expensive to manufacture because the straps are attached with glue to the face covering, while headbands on genuine N95s, also called respirators, must be stitched, stapled or soldered to establish a tighter seal over the nose and mouth.
And even if the electrocharged fibers in the fabric are the same, masks with ear loops are not as effective because tiny airborne droplets carrying the virus can get sucked through the cracks.
“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,” said infectious disease expert Shawn Gibbs, the dean of Texas A&M University’s school of public health.
AP tracked other shipments of Shanghai Dasheng ear loop N95 masks as they entered the vast U.S. medical system. Shipping labels and invoices, certified letters and interviews with more than a dozen buyers, distributors or middlemen pointed to the corporate headquarters and busy factory of Shanghai Dasheng Health Products Manufacture Company.