County emergency management directors throughout West Virginia said Tuesday first responders should have known what Gov. Jim Justice and his top public safety official knew Easter weekend.
Respirator masks shipped across West Virginia might be counterfeit. Jeff Sandy, the secretary of the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, heard that claim April 10 and shared it with the governor that weekend, a department spokesman said Tuesday.
Sandy followed by reviewing more than 50,000 masks with ear loops, part of a $567,000 purchase from China. Though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affirmed concerns the devices might be counterfeit, Sandy advised emergency officials last month that the masks were “authentic.”
Some emergency operations directors heeded their own concerns about the devices. Others heeded Sandy.
“I looked at them and I was suspicious of them from the beginning,” said Allen Holder, director of the Lincoln County Office of Emergency Management. “But we were assured by the state and Mr. Sandy that they were legitimate.”
Lincoln received 320 ear-loop masks and distributed the devices to firefighters, paramedics and police, Holder said.
State officials defended the masks during Justice’s news briefing Tuesday after the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported concerns about the masks. Officials did not directly answer when asked whether the devices should be used by front-line responders.
Sandy said that while the masks lack approval from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a Food and Drug Administration ruling permitted the use of lower-quality respirators by first responders when supplies are low.
He cited an example from an April 16 report he issued showing first responders in Israel using the same style of masks the state purchased and distributed.
Justice told reporters a shortage of masks at a time when they were in high demand nationwide left the state in a difficult position.
“Every state was scrambling around every way you could possibly scramble,” the governor said. “From what I understand from Secretary Sandy, these were not counterfeit masks, and these masks were approved by the FDA for use here in the U.S.
“The people, whether they be the [West Virginia National Guard], or DMAPS, or whomever it was in this state, we absolutely dropped everything and anything we could to be able to protect our people because our people had no protection.”
Sandy said first responders must seal the masks to their face to ensure a proper fit. Without it, the masks would not provide the baseline filtration level of 95% required in NIOSH-approved N95 masks.
But the respirators with the ear-loop design failed what’s known as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Quantitative Fit Test, according to the CDC. That test calculates a respirator’s effectiveness while a person is using it, not the mask’s filtration or efficiency level.
“The highest fit factor achieved was 11. The OSHA requirement is 100,” the CDC lab wrote in documents obtained by the Gazette-Mail through a records request.
Emergency management directors said the ear-loop design caught their eye when the masks arrived last month. Steve Lipscomb, director of the Summers County Office of Emergency Management, said the county did not treat the limited amount they received as respirators, which provide greater protection.
“We were just treating them like surgical masks,” he said. “They certainly were acceptable substitutes for surgical masks.”
Duane Hamilton, who’s led the Preston County Office of Emergency Management since 2002, said he also noticed the ear loops on some respirators the county received.
“We pretty well used them like the people who want masks, but they’re not in a critical situation ... they are like second-line masks,” he said.
A West Virginia fire chief raised concerns April 10 about the ear-loop design.
“We heard the controversy, and basically what we did was took initiative and went through the NIOSH’s website and checked for approval ourselves to make sure the ones we were handing out to our responders were N95s-approved,” Hamilton said.
Holder said he noticed the ear loops too, but didn’t think twice when the state said the devices were authentic.
“They were passed out to my fire departments, my ambulance services ... my police officers,” he said.
He worried about the unknown risk taken by first responders.
“I am concerned [that] once there was a legitimate concern put forth, with scientific data, that these may be fake, that should have been shared versus continuing to claim that they were legitimate,” Holder said.
He drew an analogy to firefighters responding to a blaze ill-equipped.
“You want to make sure they have the very best equipment with the very best possibility of surviving if something goes wrong,” Holder said, “and the same thing with the first responders that are affected by COVID-19 patients. You want to make sure that they are as protected as possible ... and if one of them gets sick because of a counterfeit mask, I mean, how could you live with yourself?”