KN95 masks
D.C. is distributing KN95 masks, but there are questions about their legitimacy. Credit: Alex Koma

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D.C. could be handing out shoddy KN95 masks that don’t offer adequate protection from contracting COVID-19, health experts say, mirroring problems found with masks American University distributed last week.

The District has been handing out free KN95s at its “COVID Centers” since late last month, distributing others to teachers at D.C. Public Schools and still more via the Metropolitan Police Department, and all of those masks exhibit issues that raise questions about their effectiveness. Several D.C. residents who picked up the masks have also expressed concerns about their quality, particularly after the face coverings have fallen apart after a few uses.

DC Health officials did not respond to calls or emails seeking information about where they bought these masks, or whether they’ve tested them to ensure their efficacy. After this story was published, a spokesperson for D.C.’s Office of Contracting and Procurement wrote in a statement that “the masks, like all COVID-19 supplies, go through a quality control review, have been deemed effective and compliant with CDC standards, and we hope residents will continue to take advantage of their availability.”

But multiple healthcare professionals who viewed the masks told Loose Lips that they are likely not made up to proper KN95 standards, so anyone using them might want to consider other mask options.

“They are still being helpful by handing these out, as it’s better than a cloth mask in many cases,” says Jana Sanchez, a spokesperson for Project N95, a nonprofit working to distribute properly made personal protective equipment. “But it is dangerous if people believe the masks are filtering out 95 percent of particles and going into areas where they could contract COVID without knowing the risks.”

It’s unclear just how many substandard masks D.C. has distributed, but the problem seems to be widespread. LL personally received masks from the Ward 1 and 2 COVID Centers on Feb. 8 and 9 that exhibited these issues, while other Twitter users have expressed concerns throughout this week.

Evan Yeats, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4, says he heard similar concerns from people picking up the masks from the centers in wards 4, 5 and 7, in addition to wards 1 and 2. Tracy Hadden Loh, one of D.C.’s representatives on the Metro board of directors, tweeted that she had concerns about a mask she received from the Ward 3 center, while teachers at a variety of schools have raised similar questions about their masks.

It’s also unknown where the masks come from. The agency told Chelsea Cirruzzo of Axios that it bought 632,500 masks from V-Tech Solutions, but it lists a different manufacturer than the one LL spotted on the boxes: ShenZen Qianhai ZhuoEn Investment Co., Ltd.

The main warning sign for D.C.’s masks is a lack of text printed on the front of the face covering. Most just say “KN95,” or are simply blank. The international standard for the masks, developed in China, requires that the sequence “GB2626-2019” be printed on the front, perhaps alongside information about the manufacturer. The sequence “GB2626-2006” is also acceptable, so long as there’s confirmation on the packaging that the masks were made within the last two years and have not expired.

The fact that the text is missing on the mask is a “red flag,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, a professor studying infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness at Johns Hopkins University. He identified the same issue with masks at AU when the university’s student newspaper, The Eagle, contacted him, and he says it’s “likely” D.C.’s masks have the same issues.

“It’s very problematic to not have the GB stamp and the number,” Anne Miller, the executive director of Project N95, writes in an email. “If the manufacturer does not take the time to read the standard and see that GB 2626-2019 is required to be printed, this may indicate that it does not meet the other strict testing requirements of the standard.”

Mask experts caution that it’s especially difficult to say for sure whether KN95s are made properly because it’s up to manufacturers, not regulators, to certify they meet the KN95 standard. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, housed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, certifies that N95 masks meet certain standards, but does not do the same for KN95s.

That’s a big reason why so many counterfeit masks are currently floating around the country, with the CDC warning that as many as 60 percent of all KN95s in the United States may be illegitimate. So Adalja says that if a mask “looks and feels like a counterfeit, it probably is.”

Though DC Health did not respond to LL’s questions, the agency did engage with one resident who raised concerns about the KN95s this week (and asked that their name not be included in this story). David Foust, listed as a contractor for the Department of Public Works, responded on the agency’s behalf to answer questions about where the city obtained the masks.

In a Monday email forwarded to LL, he wrote that “through our inspection and validation process, we can confidently say we have authentic masks at the D.C. Covid Centers.” Foust noted specifically that the masks come from boxes marked with “the seal of authenticity meeting the GB2626-2006 standard,” and noted that the CDC has not flagged any fraudulent activity by the masks’ manufacturer (though he did not name the company in question). Boxes at the Ward 2 Covid Center viewed by LL appear to list the brand as “Kemoshi,” but D.C. Health has not verified their origin and OCP did not immediately answer questions about the matter either.

Experts, however, say that masks can only be considered legitimate if the “GB” text is printed directly on the mask itself, not just the box. They also note that without certifying every step of the supply chain process, it’s impossible to know who actually made these masks, regardless of what the packaging says. Sanchez notes that this is a process most local governments are simply not equipped to follow.

“It’s not like they did something wrong,” Sanchez says. “It’s that they don’t understand all this, which is totally reasonable.”

This story has been updated with a statement from the Office of Contracting and Procurement.