This editorial appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail:
Sometimes, intentions matter. Circumstances often matter. But consequences always do.
The supply structure for obtaining personal protective equipment for hospital workers, ambulance crews, police and firefighters when the coronavirus pandemic hit was in absolute chaos. The U.S. government was not working with states to organize supply chains. State governments found themselves competing against each other, and the federal government, to find masks, splatter shields and other necessary equipment that was suddenly in short supply.
No one should blame West Virginia Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy for jumping at the chance to obtain hundreds of thousands of respirator masks when the opportunity presented itself in late March. The circumstances were extreme and unprecedented. His intentions seem honorable.
It’s now clear, through reports in the Gazette-Mail, that a large number of these masks were counterfeit. They were passed off, either by a West Virginia company, a firm and lawyer in Houston or a company in China, as something they weren’t: hospital-grade, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved N95 masks that could protect the wearer against COVID-19 microbes.
It’s a complicated story, reflective of the nightmare public health and safety officials have been living in trying to secure proper equipment for hospital workers and emergency responders. But the state government didn’t properly vet the parties in this $1.2 million deal, and, somewhere along the line, it got rooked.
The principal concern, though, is that tens of thousands of these masks were sent to West Virginia hospitals, jail facilities, law enforcement agencies and fire departments. Some realized right away the masks, although marked as NIOSH-approved N95s, were not the real deal because of the ear-loop attachments (N95s use bands that go over the wearer’s head for a tight fit that adequately covers and seals the nose and mouth). Others trusted the masks and began wearing them, even at one hospital. Many only stopped using them after the Gazette-Mail‘s initial report on the problem in April.
Some first responders and medical workers are angry with the state over the mistake. Others believe the state was doing the best it could, and even masks that didn’t do what they advertised were better than nothing.
The intentions were good, the circumstances were bad, but the consequence is that some of these workers on the front lines of a pandemic might have been exposed to COVID-19 when they thought they were protected. Sandy refuses to own up to the mistake, continuing to insist that masks he ordered — dealing with multiple parties, one of which is under criminal indictment — are legit, when they simply aren’t.
This incident needs to be independently investigated, with the findings made public, along with transparent policies to correct what went wrong.
It’s also important that Sandy and the state government acknowledge this mistake, not so they can be shamed, but so West Virginians — especially those in medical and emergency services — can rest assured that a lesson was learned and the vetting process is adjusted so this won’t happen again.