By JULIET LINDERMAN and MARTHA MENDOZA
WASHINGTON (AP) — On a day when COVID-19 cases soared, healthcare supplies were scarce and an anguished doctor warned he was being sent to war without bullets, a cargo plane landed at the Los Angeles International Airport, supposedly loaded with the ammo doctors and nurses were begging for: some of the first N95 medical masks to reach the U.S. in almost six weeks.
Already healthcare workers who lacked the crucial protection had caught COVID-19 after treating patients infected with the highly contagious new coronavirus. That very day an emergency room doctor who earlier texted a friend that he felt unsafe without protective supplies or an N95 mask, died of the infection. It was the first such death reported in the U.S., according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.
But the shipment arriving that night in late March wasn’t going to solve the problem. An Associated Press investigation has found those masks were counterfeits — as are millions of medical masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies being used in hospitals across the country, putting lives at risk.
Before the pandemic, federal trade law enforcement agencies were focused on busting knockoffs such as luxury goods and computer software, mostly from China. As America fell sick, the mission shifted to medical supplies. To date, Operation Stolen Promise, spearheaded by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, has netted 11 arrests and 519 seizures. And yet counterfeit goods continue to pour in — not just masks, but also mislabeled medicines, and fake COVID-19 tests and cures, according to the agency.