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Even a year into this pandemic, personal protective equipment like masks are in high demand, and this has kept counterfeiters in business. So far this year, federal agents announced they have seized more than 11 million counterfeit masks. Will Stone reports it is hard to keep these knockoffs out of hospitals.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: It did not take long for Tiffany Beavers-Busby to sense the masks were off.
TIFFANY BEAVERS-BUSBY: It just didn't fit right.
STONE: Beavers-Busby is a critical care nurse in New Jersey. She says these suspect N95 masks first popped up at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, where she works, in the fall.
BEAVERS-BUSBY: The straps would fall off. They were so stiff that they continued to move on your face, and it would break the seal.
STONE: That's a big deal with N95s because they're supposed to shield against the tiniest infectious particles. She says the masks appeared to be from a reputable manufacturer, 3M. And Beavers-Busby had worn a size small for years, except when she did the required fit test on these ones...
BEAVERS-BUSBY: I failed on that mask. There were people who had been wearing that mask for 20 to 30 years who suddenly failed on that mask.
STONE: So her union brought up their concerns with hospital management. But she says they couldn't get clear information. 3M, the maker, had put out a list of counterfeit mask lot numbers, and some of these masks were on there.
BEAVERS-BUSBY: The pictures went to 3M. 3M said, those are not our masks; they're fake. And then, you know, the tests came back and said that the masks were counterfeit as well.
STONE: A statement from Hackensack Meridian Health, which owns Beavers-Busby's hospital, says they're still investigating the masks, but they're not using them anymore. Counterfeit personal protective equipment is not necessarily new, but...
CHARLES JOHNSON: COVID has been what we saw before on steroids.
STONE: That's Charles Johnson with the industry group the International Safety Equipment Association. Johnson says some fake N95s are easy to spot, like the ones he's seen that have special FDA stamps of approval on them.
JOHNSON: There's no such thing as an FDA-approved marking for a respirator. So sort of on their face, they're just fraudulent.
STONE: Then there are the fakes that look just like the big brand-name N95s.
JOHNSON: We see people mimicking their labeling but also mimicking their product. So it takes pretty sophisticated detection.
STONE: About 40 hospitals in Washington state recently learned this firsthand after Homeland Security alerted them that a huge batch of N95s they'd bought were counterfeits. Cassie Sauer is president of the Washington State Hospital Association.
CASSIE SAUER: They're really, really good fakes. If you put them side by side, you cannot tell them apart.
STONE: Sauer says even health care workers couldn't see the difference. Her association estimates about 2 million of these counterfeits made it to Washington hospitals. Luckily, not many were actually in use yet.
Jay Kennedy is a professor at Michigan State who studies counterfeits. He says a big challenge is that medical goods like PPE end up on the market in different ways and can pass through multiple middlemen.
JAY KENNEDY: Sometimes they can get on with individuals who say, yeah, I've got, you know, extra cases here from a 3M facility in Singapore.
STONE: Federal agents are aggressively pursuing these illegal operations. And the CDC has a website that details how to spot fakes. Kennedy says it's a great tool for consumers...
KENNEDY: But it's also great for a counterfeiter 'cause now they know what mistakes they were making, and they just correct them. And this trial and error - they understand it.
STONE: And Kennedy says as long as America is scrambling for this protective equipment, you can expect these fakes to keep improving, mutating, if you will, to stay ahead of authorities.
For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.
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