The Department of Homeland Security announced that it has seized more than eleven million counterfeit 3M N95 respirator masks.
The protective gear, which were on their way to frontline health-care workers, were discovered over weekslong raids, according to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Just on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of counterfeit masks were pinpointed in a warehouse on the East Coast.
The raids were conducted as part of Operation Stolen Promise, which was launched by Homeland Security last spring and partners across government and the private sector to investigate frauds related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mayorkas added that Homeland Security agents have already served search warrants in five states over the past two weeks. More raids in the coming weeks should be expected.
“We are at a vulnerable time, of course, with the pandemic costing so many lives and causing so much harm,” Mayorkas said during a press conference.
“And that individuals, criminals exploit our vulnerabilities for a quick buck is something that we will continue to aggressively pursue.”
Mayorkas noted that the investigation’s initial leads came from 3M, which expressed concern that counterfeit masks were being purchased for health-care workers and first responders.
“3M is proud to partner with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help combat counterfeiting of 3M N95 respirators,” Kevin Rhodes, 3M vice president and deputy general counsel, said in a statement.
“This collaboration has helped prevent millions of counterfeit respirators from reaching frontline workers. We are committed to fighting the pandemic from all angles—manufacturing needed PPE, working to prevent counterfeiting and helping ensure N95s get to where they are needed the most.”
Ever since the start of the pandemic roughly a year ago, N95 masks have been considered the gold standard for both medical professionals and the general public. However, these particular masks often have been in short supply, which prompted individuals to search for alternatives.
One Harvard medical expert has even asserted that all Americans should wear N95 masks to help mitigate the further spread of the virus. There is “no reason any essential worker—and really, everyone in the country—should go without masks that filter 95 percent,” Joseph Allen, the director of the Healthy Buildings program at the university, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.
He added: “Take the example of two 70 percent efficient masks, which combine to reduce 91 percent of particles. Not bad. But two N95s result in greater than a 99 percent reduction in exposure. Think about that for a minute. We could reduce exposure by 99 percent for what should be $1 a mask. (Prices are higher now because of the failure to produce an adequate supply.) Throw in better ventilation and some distance between people, and you have hospital-grade protections.”
Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that double-masking, or the wearing of two face masks at once, can provide extremely high levels of protection against spreading or contracting the coronavirus.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.