State’s cache of old masks leads to false coronavirus rumors
In the heat of the search for medical face masks, the state Department of Public Health emerged with a useful contribution — boxes and boxes of N95 masks, left in a state warehouse since the days of the swine flu outbreak in 2009.
The total was 144,000, or in the way wholesalers might call it, 12,000 dozen, made by Kimberly-Clark. Trouble is, they were past their stated expiration dates.
Someone questioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sent word that the masks were indeed too old to use — too old, that is, to function as fully protective, N95 masks for use by doctors and nurses working directly with coughing and wheezing COVID-19 patients.
The masks were fine for general use such as by first responders, in nursing homes and in less intensive medical situations, Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer and commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, told Hearst Connecticut Media late Thursday.
Word starting getting around over the last few days, and not necessarily with all the facts straight.
State Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, spoke up Wednesday about the masks on the daily call of New Canaan civic and community leaders.
“Stamford Hospital and Norwalk Hospital are concerned about their stocks of PPE,” Dothan said on the call, referring to personal protective equipment, the masks, gowns and gloves that are suddenly gold across the world.
“Apparently, the stocks that were sent by the federal government, that were received yesterday by some of the hospitals, the equipment was expired. It’s a big concern,” the Democrat said on the call.
On Thursday, she explained to Hearst Connecticut Media that she understood about 110,000 surgical and 30,000 of the more protective N95 masks were expired, and received with broken elastic bands. “They were received from the national stockpile,” she said.
Dathan cautioned that her information came from another legislator and she had not verified it. The goods were apparently part of the state’s request for 250,000 masks, Dathan said.
Dathan’s facts were dangerously wrong. The expired masks never went out to hospitals or anyone else under false claims. And they didn’t come from the federal stockpile.
The state had in fact made a request for 250,000 N95 masks and received 34,000, far short of the mark, Geballe said. The good news is that the state expects an order of 1 million masks from a private seller, along with other PPE goods in a $15 million purchase.
That was no easy feat. The state has tracked down 357 PPE leads, Geballe said, some of them friends of friends who are said to have masks.
Stamford Hospital knew nothing about expired masks because it never received any. The 144,000 masks, cleared as surgical masks, went out to municipalities, elderly care facilities and health centers, Geballe said, clearly marked as not certified for N95 use.
The nation is dealing with how to manage old masks. Late Thursday, the Washington Post reported on a dispute over what authorities should do with 1.5 million expired but still useful masks in a government warehouse.
Dathan’s well-meaning spreading of false information illustrates what can happen in any complex organization, all the more intensely in a crisis.
As for the elastic bands, yes, they’re old and failing. and whoever ends up with those masks will have to staple on their own rubber bands, or whatever works. These are not normal times.
This story includes reporting by Grace Duffield