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A Braxton County Office of Emergency Services employee wears a respirator sent by the state. This photo was sent to the CDC.

The West Virginia public safety office created a task force to monitor counterfeit equipment the same weekend Gov. Jim Justice was told 50,000 respirators the state bought were potential knockoffs.

The task force was formed to monitor possible counterfeit goods coming into the state for COVID-19 response. Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy told Justice over Easter weekend the state had reached out to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing lab inquiring about the respirators, a department spokesman wrote in an email.

The CDC lab wrote back the following Monday, advising officials the respirators held on the face by the ears were likely counterfeit and not approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Made up of state and federal law enforcement officials, the task force is monitoring four areas of concern, according to a release from the department. However, three of those deal with other threats to public safety, and not personal protection equipment:

  • international threats to potentially exploit COVID-19 to weaken U.S. shale oil;
  • terrorist and extremist groups se
  • eking to exploit COVID-19 in an attempt to incite violence within weakened health care systems, faith-based and minority communities;
  • false information on social media to create heightened concern and panic toward government operations
  • an “exploded” market for counterfeit personal protection equipment

As part of the governor’s directive, the public safety department formed a special investigative partnership with the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement, the department spokesman wrote.

West Virginia’s members on the task force include two representatives each from the state Homeland Security office, the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Four State Police troopers — two in Northern West Virginia and two in Southern West Virginia — also will sit on the task force.

Sandy was not available Wednesday to answer additional questions about the task force, the spokesman said.

At the direction of Justice, through Sandy, the task force will “[i]nvestigate counterfeit or fraud of personal protection equipment and materials solicited for purchase and use against COVID-19,” according to the release.

“Current federal strategic stockpiles are depleted ... . This supply/demand shortfall has increased the use of PPE products from manufacturing suppliers outside the United States. The counterfeit market for these items has exploded,” the release says.

The federal and state agencies comprising the task force have had relationships prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release says.

State officials defended the purchase of the 50,000 respirators, included in a $567,000 purchase, during the governor’s coronavirus news briefings Tuesday and Wednesday. The respirators are not NIOSH approved, officials said, but they were approved by the FDA for emergency use when supplies are short.

Questions surrounding the authenticity of the respirators followed a report from the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the CDC advised top state public safety officials the respirators were counterfeit.

Reach Joe Severino at

joe.severino@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-4814 or follow

@jj_severino on Twitter.