Shortage of protective gear leads hospitals to buy and keep faulty N95 masks

The lack of adequate personal protective equipment in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is leading hospitals around the country to buy N95 respirator masks that are faulty and use them, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Hospitals and local health officials are trying to buy masks from private stockpiles or smaller manufacturers as the scarcity of protective equipment deepens and COVID-19 cases grow. Some of these masks fail basic quality tests and may not offer the protection needed against the new coronavirus. But hospitals are keeping them.

For example, Springfield, Mo.-based CoxHealth bought 100,000 N95 masks from a reseller that was not one of its usual suppliers. One of the masks failed a "fit test," which tests the masks' quality and efficacy, and the reseller offered to buy them back. But CoxHealth decided to keep them.

"These aren't perfect but they have some protection," Steve Edwards, president of CoxHealth, told the Journal.

State and local public health officials are also working to secure masks for healthcare workers and are running into similar issues. Greg Holcomb, director of public safety support for Lake County, Fla., said only one of different types of masks county officials purchased from manufacturers in China passed its quality tests.

The federal government is taking steps to increase the availability of masks in the country. It is working with 3M to bring nearly 167 million masks in from China over the next three months, and it is planning to restrict the export of certain types of masks and gloves for four months.

The FDA is also allowing the use of masks certified in other countries, such as Mexico and South Korea, but this is opening the door for suspect masks, hospital buyers and established manufacturers, told the Journal. It can be difficult to confirm that these masks have, in fact, been tested and certified abroad.

Some hospitals are deciding not to buy masks from suppliers they do not trust. For example, Rosie Poole, purchasing manager for Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, Wash., told the Journal, that her hospital is asking area residents to make cloth masks for patients and conserving the use of medical-grade masks where possible.

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