Feb 25, 2022 - COVID

D.C.'s pandemic procurements face scrutiny

A KN95 mask
Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The D.C. Office of the Inspector General is looking at D.C.'s pandemic emergency procurements as part of an audit and risk assessment that started last summer.

Why it matters: The CDC has said 60% of KN95 masks in the U.S. are counterfeit.

  • Earlier this month, American University student reporters broke the news that the university was unknowingly giving out counterfeits to students, staff, and faculty.
  • Shortly thereafter, a Washington City Paper article questioned the quality of the KN95 face masks given out at COVID-19 centers in the District — although the city has maintained that the masks are authentic.

Flashback: In Sept. 2020, the OIG conducted its first audit of goods and services acquired during the pandemic, including whether those items were bought at a fair market value and were adequately managed. Those items included masks, hand sanitizers, and other PPE.

  • The first audit was closed in May 2021 with OIG suggesting that D.C. improve its inventory organization and record-keeping at its procurement facility.

Last summer, OIG announced a new ongoing audit of supplies procured in support of the public emergency, as well as an ongoing risk assessment of goods and services obtained during the pandemic.

  • OIG deputy inspector general Matthew Wilcoxson could not provide further details on the audit, but tells Axios that the audit report will be made public when it's complete.

What they're saying: When Evan Yeats, a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner, tweeted concerns about the KN95 masks the city was distributing at COVID-19 centers, he got a call from an investigator with the D.C. Office of the Inspector General.

  • Wilcoxson tells Axios that the agency operates a confidential fraud, waste, and abuse hotline. It also regularly monitors press reports and social media posts to get insight on consumer quality issues. The OIG's office would not say how many residents had been contacted.

Project N95 executive director Anne Miller says that identifying authentic KN95 masks is complicated.

  • KN95s, which are manufactured in China, are not standardized by U.S. regulators like N95s are. Miller encourages people to look for the international regulation code: “GB2626-2019” or "GB2626-2006" which should be printed directly onto the mask.
  • As City Paper noted in its reporting, D.C.'s masks only say KN95 on them, but a D.C. official told the paper that the boxes the masks come in do have the international regulation code on them.

The D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement told Axios it was using its current supply of PPE to stock the masks in the COVID-19 distribution center. The manufacturer was listed as ShenZhen Qianhai ZhuoEn Investment Co., Ltd., and D.C. paid roughly $2.8 million for more than 630,000 masks.

  • “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,” the office said in a statement.
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