Only one batch of KN95 masks destined for the Regional Transportation District’s employees has passed its testing, out of six total batches.
“The failed masks will not be used and in most cases we are sending them back to the vendor and not paying for them, as they are not what was represented and may give individuals a false sense of protection,” said Christine L. Jaquez, a spokesperson for RTD. “The one batch of counterfeit KN95 masks that passed are being held in inventory to be used only if we run out of the 3M-approved N95 masks.”
RTD in April had an order pending for 21,000 N95 respirators and surgical masks, which the agency augmented with an order of KN95s. The shipment began arriving after April 20, destined for Colorado State University’s laboratory for testing. Two batches have yet to be tested.
N95 respirators, which block 95% of tiny particles, are medical-grade and are not for recommended use by the general public. KN95 masks, by contrast, are Chinese made and conform to that country’s health standards. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the masks in April to address the chronic shortage of N95 respirators among frontline medical personnel.
However, in mid-May the FDA revised its authorization, noting that the KN95 masks “may not provide consistent and adequate respiratory protection to health care personnel exposed to COVID-19 based on additional filtration performance testing conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.”
Lance Longenbohn, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents 2,300 RTD employees, said that the union also gave masks to RTD for testing. The ones that have passed, RTD has prioritized for maintenance, service and cleaning workers, and new employees who must complete in-cab training for light rail and commuter runs.
“Once RTD got their hands on the masks, it really became an exercise in just how bureaucratic they can be,” he said.
On a virtual call on Saturday with some transit operators and RTD Director Shontel M. Lewis, District B, the question of the KN95 masks’ authenticity arose. Lewis said she did not know that the masks had failed the test.
“Give those to the riders,” said Yvette Trujillo, international vice president of the ATU, who was also on the call. “If they’re not safe for our operators, I believe any kind of face covering is better than nothing. Yet there are several thousand masks just sitting there.”
Christian L’Orange with the Department of Mechanical Engineering at CSU, explained that the lab did not test all KN95 masks in the six RTD batches. “No reason to conduct a full blown set of tests if it becomes obvious that a given mask isn’t going to pass,” he said.
The purpose of the testing is to verify a mask’s ability to remove particles from the air and measure resistance while breathing through the mask, which is done through an airflow test followed by a particle measurement. Fewer particles permeating the mask and lower drops in pressure are desirable. To pass the test, the mask needs to filter 95% of the particles and meet a pressure threshold.
“It is difficult to generalize how protective a ‘failed’ mask will be,” L’Orange said. “A bandana tied around your face will fail the tests, but it is still likely to be more protective than not wearing one at all.”
On the call with employees, one participant asked why operators had to wear a mask for 30 days before receiving another one.
"It's unacceptable and it's not safe," Lewis responded. Longenbohn, the union president, said that he had not heard of the 30-day restriction, and said operators were free to obtain and wear their own masks.
Jaquez said that there is no 30-day rule, but RTD is asking those employees with N95 respirators to extend their use. That equipment is now typically replaced after 14 days. N95s are single-use devices, to be discarded when breathing becomes difficult or the respirator is damaged.
As of last week, RTD reports that there were 11 positive COVID-19 cases among employees, with two results pending.