TOWNSHEND — A seeming lack of accountability regarding mislabeled masks being sent to schools and businesses has teacher Dan DeWalt worried and upset.
“It's not about what happened or didn't happen in my school,” says the Leland & Gray Union High School woodshop teacher. “It's about the state got their hands on a bunch of fraudulently labeled masks, and they're not going to do anything about it.”
It started with a shipment of masks to Leland & Gray early in the pandemic, likely the fall of 2020.
DeWalt explains the masks were not used until early this year, after the school's plant manager and nurse - who presumably might have known about the mask shipment - had both left the school's employ.
When staff members found they were running short of masks to hand out, someone found the boxes and pulled them out, believing they were KN95 masks. KN95 are said to offer 95-97 percent filtration, making them much more efficient and safe than cloth or thin, paper masks.
The box, says DeWalt, was labeled “KN95” and each mask - made in China - was individually wrapped and also labeled “KN95.”
Until this time, DeWalt had been teaching with his classroom windows “wide open” to circulate air.
“My class was freezing, but my kids were awesome,” he says. “They were OK with it, but the maintenance guy was having trouble because the heater wasn't working quite right and the room never got warm even after classes.”
Thinking he and others now had KN95 masks to wear, DeWalt closed the windows. That's when he saw a news story in The New York Times about fake masks.
DeWalt stopped using the masks and then learned that 1,000 falsely labeled masks had been delivered to Brattleboro as well. Those were sent back.
“I discovered that the Department of Health had masks labeled and boxed as KN95s, but were found by the Department to not be that at all,” he says. “In reality, they were no different than a paper or cloth mask, only with a better fit.
“Even though they pulled the masks out of circulation and the Department of Health acknowledged that they were labeled fraudulently, they show no interest in contacting either the company that made the masks or, in fact, to do anything about it,” he said.
Searching for accountability
DeWalt contacted the state Department of Health and Vermont Emergency Management and was told that yes, indeed, the masks were mislabeled.
His concern was heightened, DeWalt said, because last year, when the Vermont Agency of Education “insisted” that high school sports continue, a student athlete at the school contracted Covid and passed it on to a family member who ultimately died.
Robert Willey, who has been on the job for one month in the medical countermeasures warehouse of the Department of Health, told DeWalt the masks in question “are real masks, however, you are also correct that they are not KN95s.”
“These masks have not been released from our warehouse in over a year after it was found that they did not provide any more protection than a procedure mask,” Willey said.
DeWalt felt the state agencies should take more accountability and told them so.
“My concern is that there does not seem to be any recognition of the importance of that fraud and that there seems to have been - nor will there be? - any action to hold the company that fraudulently packaged these masks accountable,” he wrote to the state officials.
“Inaction will simply encourage them to continue fraudulent activity,” DeWalt continued. “Maybe the next people who are misled by this company will not be as lucky as we were and someone may end up in the hospital or underground as a result of a company's fraud and the state's inaction. Please let me know what you intend to do about this.”
Department of Public Safety 'not seeking action'
Vermont Emergency Management Director Erica Borneman replied that, in August 2020, masks were distributed to schools. They were “meant to be utilized similar to cloth face coverings and were sent along with messaging to supervisory union administration that explained their appropriate use.”
“These masks were tested in independent labs and were not shown to be medical grade, but proved to be as effective in the place of cloth face coverings or procedure masks,” she wrote.
She concluded that the state Department of Public Safety “is not currently seeking action against the companies that made the masks distributed previously as they were provided for a use that did not exceed their quality and this use was communicated clearly. Further action, if any, would be referred to the Attorney General's office.”
Not good enough, says DeWalt.
“Who else did they send those masks to and what stops the distributor from continuing to do this if the state doesn't step in?” asks DeWalt. “We've stopped holding people accountable across the board - whether Donald Trump or anybody else in government who lies to us - and I kind of don't understand that [...] and I think it's bogus.”
Vermont Emergency Management Public Information Officer Mark Bosma, when contacted by The Commons, said the “process” of circulating masks included independent testing ahead of distribution to ensure the degree of efficacy.
“In this case our testing determined these were not suitable to be used in a medical setting, but were still appropriate for use as face coverings with similar protection provided by cloth face coverings and surgical masks,” Bosma wrote.
He continued to say that in 2020, when the donated masks were initially sent, “face coverings were still challenging to find on the open market” and it was prioritized to send something for students, staff members, and teachers in case they didn't already have their own masks.
He echoed Borneman: The masks, he said, were distributed to schools “with clear guidance both in direct contact with schools and with instructions included in boxes of masks.”
Bosma says the Agency of Education communication to schools read: “Working in partnership with Vermont Emergency Management, the AOE will provide 10 non-medical grade KN95 masks per teacher/school staff in your [supervisory union]/[school district]/Independent School. The masks are not fit-test capable, so they cannot be used in medical contexts or where a working N95 mask is needed; however, they will be adequate for general use in place of a cloth face covering or surgical mask.”
Apparently, any notes in the boxes delivered to Leland & Gray were misplaced or lost before the boxes were finally opened and masks were used.
The state is currently shipping 100,000 KN95s that “have been tested in independent labs and are shown to provide a higher quality of protection than cloth face coverings or procedure masks” to schools for distribution through supervisory unions, Bosma wrote.