Authorities seize $600K worth of counterfeit N95 masks from Texas warehouse

Over $600,000 worth of counterfeit surgical N95 masks seized in a warehouse in Texas

This week, authorities in Texas seized an enormous amount of counterfeit surgical N95 masks that were intended to supply workers at a hospital. The warehouse contained over $600,000 worth of the valuable face masks healthcare and other types of workers needed for protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shipment was intercepted by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) this Monday, containing 100,090 N95 surgical masks that were fake, posing to be 3M N95 masks. The seizure was done at Ysleta Cargo Facility as the masks were in transit to a hospital on the East Coast from El Paso, according to the statement made by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) during a press conference.

During the press conference, the acting special agent in charge of El Paso’s ICE HSI said that this seizure not only ensured the safety and health of the frontline workers to whom the masks were directed by preventing them from using inferior PPE (personal protective equipment), but it also protected the integrity of the economy in the United States.

Since the onset of the pandemic, N95 respirators have been one of the most requested and sought after products. They are an extremely crucial and valuable part of the medical PPE so that healthcare workers can be protected from COVID-19 infection. Healthcare facilities have been struggling to obtain these masks, which they need for when they take care of COVID-19 patients.

These shortages of PPE, and particularly N95 masks, have led to multiple schemes and scams surrounding the item, with the selling of counterfeit masks being a prominent and constant threat during this year.

Since April, ICE and CBP have been investigating multiple illegal schemes related to the pandemic, including the sale of counterfeit and illegal import of medical PPE. They’ve named this mission the Operation Stolen Promise, which has already led to the seizure of over $29 million worth of PPE, and 187 criminal arrests, as stated by the ICE. For example, in September, officials from the CBP seized in Boston more than 20,000 counterfeit N95 masks from a shipment arriving from Hong Kong.

What are N95 masks?

N95 masks are a type of disposable face masks that have been widely used by healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic for their protection. They are the best mask for virus protection in healthcare settings because they offer antiviral properties that surpass those from surgical masks. Healthcare settings have a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, particularly when caring for confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is why workers in this field need the highest form of protection they can get.

The name of the mask indicates that it’s a respirator that doesn’t filter out particles that contain oil, which is the meaning of the letter ‘N’, and it has a filtration efficacy of 95%, the meaning of the ‘95’. This name comes from the classification of respirators established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). They are a federal agency part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and they regulate respirators and certify all the masks manufactured in the USA meet their requirements for each respirator type.

So, respirators that can be defined as N95 respirators according to NIOSH can filter out a minimum of 95% of the non-oil-based airborne particles in the air, which are those with a minimum size of 0.3 micrometers. The mask can, therefore, filter out dust, smoke, pollen, and even some bioaerosols, which includes the flu virus and the coronavirus as well. This is why they are so effective for protecting people from COVID-19 in situations of high exposure.

Surgical N95 masks specifically refer to the N95 respirators used in healthcare settings, since these masks have many different uses in a wide variety of work fields. For example, they can be used in construction or mining sites, or while painting.

When a manufacturer makes face masks that are intended to be N95 masks, NIOSH has to test them and approve if they meet their requirements for this type of respirator. This means that any face mask marketed as N95 that doesn’t have this approval seal is considered a counterfeit item since they haven’t been proven to meet the requirements for this type of mask. N95 masks specifically intended for their use in the healthcare field need additional approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

These masks have been scarce for the majority of the year, along with other medical supplies including KN95 masks, face shields, surgical masks, gowns, and gloves. This is due to the very high demand for these items during the pandemic which, despite the efforts made by big companies like 3M and Honeywell to increase their production, haven’t been easily met. Even the most popular 3M N95 masks, like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, have been scarce.

This situation has led to hospitals and other healthcare facilities and offices to struggle in their quest to have enough PPE to work safely during the pandemic. This problem has also allowed the surge of many illegal schemes and scams surrounding particularly N95 masks, with authorities seizing shipments of counterfeit N95 masks regularly across the country.

It’s a very dangerous situation when hospitals buy these items in bulk and wholesale, since they aren’t proven to offer the protection they need, and healthcare workers can be put at risk while wearing these masks in situations of high exposure to the virus. 

To help healthcare workers, the general public needs to follow the recommendations made by the CDC in wearing reusable cloth masks in public, which are easily found for sale online or can be made at home. This includes kids over the age of 2.

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