Gov. Jim Justice says 50,000 masks distributed to first responders might not have been ideal, but they were all West Virginia had when all 50 states grasped for protective gear.
“I can tell you we all got caught in a situation; we were scrambling in every direction trying to find masks,” Justice said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
The governor was responding to a question about whether the masks provide adequate protection to first responders.
West Virginia’s public safety secretary, Jeff Sandy, acknowledged in a report to emergency services directors and then again at the news conference that a $567,000 purchase by state officials landed protective equipment that fell short of recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Of West Virginia’s purchase of 100,000 masks, about half came into question because they fasten behind the ear instead of wrapping around the head. The other half are the right kind.
The ear loops mean the masks might not seal as tightly, providing less defense against airborne virus.
But before the purchase, the governor said, “Our people had no protection.”
The purchase was first reported this week by The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Questions arose about whether the masks were counterfeit, which has been a widespread problem eliciting warnings from the CDC.
Sandy has said the masks were not counterfeit.
But he acknowledged they are not what CDC or NIOSH recommends, although he said they have been given situational approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
“The ones with the ear straps are non-NIOSH, but they are allowed to be used,” Sandy said.
Sandy has been fielding questions about the masks from some county emergency responders and trying to determine if the provider is on the up-and-up for about a month.
He wrote a 10-page report, originally intended for county emergency services managers, about his findings. The report also included communications with CDC and NIOSH.
Sandy said the state obtained the masks through a vendor with West Virginia ties, identified today as Ballard Safety Equipment, and originally manufactured by Shanghai Dasheng Health Products of China, one of the world’s largest mask manufacturers.
Their authenticity was first questioned April 10 by Chief Ed Simmons of the Fairmont Fire Department, who grew suspicious of the product after watching a video conference with the professional fire chiefs association.
The question went up the chain to Sandy.
Sandy then posed questions to the CDC, NIOSH and to a Texas law firm that was able to provide documentation.
In the end, Sandy concluded that the masks don’t meet recommended standards but aren’t counterfeit.
“When the word counterfeit is used, these masks were manufactured at the world’s second largest mask manufacturer in China,” Sandy said.
Dean Meadows, president of the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, described Sandy as straightforward with county 911 directors.
“He let the counties know ‘Here’s the investigation, but if you don’t feel comfortable using the mask then don’t use the mask.’ All of us had the choice to do what we wanted to do with the information,” Meadows said in a telephone interview.
“There were some who said, ‘Look we don’t feel comfortable with the masks and we took them back.’ Others said, ‘Hey we don’t have anything; we’re glad to have the masks.'”
Meadows said the masks were not counterfeit, but instead a product by the manufacturer that doesn’t meet the same standard as an N95 mask.
“The masks were not counterfeit as far as saying these aren’t from this company in China. They make different kinds of masks,” he said. “The issue was, is the fitting proper to be considered a true N95 mask?”
When the masks were first provided, Meadows said, most responders were struggling to get any personal protective equipment at all.
“It did provide some level of protection better than we had, which is nothing,”
Delegate Buck Jennings, R-Preston, said he would be wary of relying on the masks that loop over the ear. Jennings is a paramedic, emergency medical technician instructor and chairman for Homeland Security in West Virginia’s House of Delegates.
In the back of an ambulance, he said, space can be very confined. A contaminant in the air — such as airborne virus particles — could threaten an emergency responder, Jennings said.
“Whenever you breathe in, if it comes around your nose or up around your chin, that mask does zero good,” Jennings said. “As far as protecting you, I don’t think it would be nearly as good.”
An N95 mask, as recommended by federal authorities, would provide a tight seal, he said. Other masks might not be sealed tightly.
“If you are a cop and you’re coming up to someone where you’re breathing hard, if you have a halfway-sealed mask you’re not protected,” Jennings said. “It just sounds to me like somebody screwed up and they’re just trying to make up for it.”
Justice, during the press briefing, described an honest effort to try to provide whatever protection was available.
“Really and truly, a lot of people are getting beat on here that probably did a lot of good work,” the governor said.