How shoddy masks are getting to the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic

Some imported face masks fail to block COVID-19
Some imported face masks fail to block COVID-... 02:16

Last Updated May 11, 2020 7:05 PM EDT

Last month, first responders in Massachusetts discovered that some of the masks they were relying on — which supposedly filter out 95% of small airborne particles — were likely doing nothing of the sort.

MIT testing revealed that some masks distributed by the state were filtering less than 30%.

When asked if he thought some Massachusetts firefighters were infected because of substandard masks, union president Richard MacKinnon Jr. said, "I can't say that for sure, I can tell you that our firefighters have been infected. We made the advisory that these KN95 masks should only be used in a worst-case scenario." 

N95 masks — technically, respirators – are needed to protect healthcare and emergency workers. They're strictly regulated by the US government, but there aren't enough of them. So last month, the FDA approved the use of the Chinese equivalent, KN95 masks, providing their manufacturers met certain criteria.

But the Centers for Disease Control has warned of counterfeit masks coming from China.

CBS News contacted several Chinese suppliers, posing as importers. Some said their respirators, labeled KN95, were not suitable for use in hospitals. "I don't suggest you use them," one supplier said. 

Professor Joseph Allen said the US government should have ramped up American production much earlier.

"We now see counterfeit masks coming on the market and that's because of there's not a coordinated response or coordinated oversight coming from the federal government," he said. 

The Chinese government said it's now cracking down and seizing 89 million shoddy masks. But it's unclear how many of them have already made their way to the US.