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Some VA stockpiles of protective medical masks aren’t usable

People walked through Manhattan Wednesday with surgical masks as fears of the coronavirus increase.Spencer Platt/Getty Images/Getty Images

Some emergency stockpiles of respirator masks at the Department of Veterans Affairs have deteriorated in storage and can’t be used, according to an internal e-mail warning that the agency’s supplies may be overestimated.

The warning about problems in caches of emergency supplies comes after the World Health Organization said Tuesday that disruptions to the global supply of personal protective equipment are putting lives at risk in the novel coronavirus outbreak.

VA officials in one region in the southeastern US were inspecting their stocks of the respirators, known as N95s, which filter out more particles than standard surgical masks. The masks are effective shields against infection only when properly fitted.


“The rubberized straps are deteriorated due to prolonged storage,” a VA employee wrote in the e-mail to medical and emergency staff viewed by Bloomberg News, rendering “the majority” of the N95s in storage in that service area unusable. That would also leave the area “at a critically low” level of supply, according to the email. The e-mail’s author sought guidance on using masks beyond their expiration date.

The message also warned that without inspecting the supply of masks, “our inventory at hand is woefully overestimating what really we are able to use.”

The Veterans Health Administration is organized into 18 regional networks that manage 172 medical centers and care for more than 7 million veterans annually. The e-mail appeared to describe the situation in one regional network. It is unclear whether the problem affected other regions.

“VA regularly inventories supplies of surgical masks at our facilities as part of our procedures to prepare for projected needs and to support continued quality care for Veterans and safety for our employees,” said agency spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci in an e-mail. She didn’t respond directly to questions about whether any masks had deteriorated.

The VA isn’t experiencing shortages of N95 masks, gloves, or gowns, Mandreucci said.


There are indications that other US medical-supply inventories are in better shape. This week the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published new reports on expired respirators tested for performance at 10 stockpile facilities. Nearly all of the respirators tested, including some as old as 15 years, met the agency’s standards, according to the reports. Most facilities had stocks between eight and 12 years old.

The NIOSH testing assessed the masks’ function and inspected them for visual damage, Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an e-mail. The agency is collecting data now on the integrity of the straps, she said.

Supplies of the masks globally have been stretched thin as individuals and facilities race to snap up the respirators. Health authorities have asked the public not to buy the masks to make sure medical workers have access.

The first confirmed case of Covid-19 to be treated at a VA health facility was a veteran who tested positive and was transferred to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California for treatment on Monday, said Mandreucci, the agency spokeswoman. The patient is being treated in isolation, she said, and the VA is screening veterans and staff according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Front-line medical workers are particularly at risk for exposure to the novel coronavirus and other more routine pathogens that respirators can help protect against. Health authorities bolstered emergency stockpiles of supplies like masks, gowns and gloves after previous outbreaks such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic.


One federal emergency manager who spoke on condition of anonymity said supplies are sometimes discarded if they are past the expiration date, even if they appeared usable. The ability of medical facilities to manage their emergency caches varies widely, with some ensuring that the oldest inventory is used first, before it expires or deteriorates.

On Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency request to let health care workers use N95 respirators intended for industrial settings. While the FDA regulates N95 masks used in medical settings, most respirators are used in construction or other industrial settings to protect workers from particles or fumes.

California health authorities said Tuesday that the state had received approval from the CDC to draw on an emergency stockpile of 21 million N95 masks, including some that were past their expiration date. The masks were stored in climate-controlled conditions to “prevent the degradation of elastic that slips around the ears,” according to a statement from the California Department of Public Health.