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Kelly McCormick
February 11, 2021

Counterfeit money, counterfeit handbags, counterfeit PPE? Yes, of all the things to manufacture in counterfeits, personal protective equipment (PPE) is the latest victim. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers and the general public alike sprang into action seeking PPE and making homemade masks to address a national PPE shortage. Now months into this pandemic, this new PPE crisis has risen to global attention. Unlike that cheap “designer” bag, it can cost a life.

A Problem without an End in Sight

With some relief to the nationwide PPE shortage, one would think that likewise counterfeit PPE is no longer a significant threat in the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately, the opposite Is true—in fact, counterfeit PPE just rose to national attention in October 2020. And, according to the American Nurses Association (ANA), 42% of respondents in a recent survey still reported widespread or intermittent PPE shortages.

Public health officials have also stated their predictions that the world will continue exercising precautionary measures, like mask-wearing, for the foreseeable future, even after a vaccine becomes widely available. As long as there is still a need for masks, there will still be production of counterfeit ones, especially of the filtered N95 and KN95 variety.

The Unknown World of Counterfeit PPE

Cathy Denning, RN and SVP of Sourcing Operations and Analytics at Vizient, recently testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance to describe her experience within the medical supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Denning, healthcare workers around the world suddenly began using 10 times their normal PPE, almost overnight. In response to the increased need for PPE, so-called PPE makers quickly sprang up claiming to be reputable Chinese manufacturers.

Denning and her team at Vizient set up a sort of “war room” committee to evaluate and vet numerous suppliers. In one instance, the team received 39 submissions claiming to be brokers of a single Chinese manufacturer. These brokers claimed they could supply additional gloves, masks, and gowns even though these products were not listed with the FDA. While Denning and her team had the experience and the means to conclude these could not all be reputable PPE suppliers, not everyone has the ability to do so, which leaves the question—how much fraudulent PPE is out there?

Distinguishing Real vs. Counterfeit PPE

Researchers cannot definitively determine just how much counterfeit PPE entered the market in 2020. However, they have given common warning signs of counterfeit PPE.

Your PPE may be counterfeit if:

  • It is overpriced. PPE manufacturing giant 3M declared that the company will not respond to the pandemic by raising the price of their products. Yet, thousands of apparent 3M products are selling on sites like Amazon, Ebay, and Alibaba by independent resellers for far more than their original price.
  • It is labelled a counterfeit on the NIOSH website. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) keeps a running list of approved PPE manufacturers and their products. The site also includes photos of fraudulent products to look out for.
  • There’s something off about those ear loops. Counterfeited products often include ear loops and, while this alone is not a sign of a counterfeit, the fit around ears may be noticeably different especially for healthcare workers used to wearing real PPE on a daily basis.
  • The color is different than in the past. Reputable PPE manufacturers are not casually switching their color palate seasonally. If a new shipment of PPE appears faded, grey, or simply not the color you were expecting, you should look into the authenticity of these products.
  • The product is missing usual classifications. For example, a mask usually includes a filter classification, lot number and/or model number, and brand name. While all products may differ, refer to your memory of past purchases—changes are telling.