Thousands of masks meant to safeguard people at the Savannah River Site amid the novel coronavirus pandemic have been deemed deficient, as they were sourced from a manufacturing facility not on a federal government-sanctioned list.
The 8,450 KN95 masks, initially ordered for potential use as high-quality personal protective equipment, a U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson said, are now flagged for use as face coverings – a significant step down for what was supposed to be a batch of N95 equivalents, coveted masks that filter at least 95% of airborne particles.
The coronavirus, first identified in central China, spreads mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes; masks and face coverings act as a shield or barrier.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette, whose department oversees the Savannah River Site, in April guidance advised that "all individuals" – federal employees, contractors, visitors – wear cloth face coverings when physical distancing proves difficult.
The Energy Department spokesperson on Thursday would not specify from where the KN95 masks came from. A catalog published by the Food and Drug Administration, the spokesperson explained, "did not include the supplier as an authorized manufacturing facility."
None of the 8,450 masks received at the Savannah River Site have been issued as personal protective equipment, professional gear meant to minimize the chance of contracting an illness or getting hurt.
A total 32 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, had been confirmed among the Savannah River Site workforce as of Friday morning. Nine of those cases are active. More than 10,000 people are employed at the south-of-Aiken site, home to millions of gallons of radioactive waste, myriad nuclear weapons missions and a breadth of research ventures.
South Carolina health officials on Friday reported a record-high number of new coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period: 770, five of which were traced to Aiken County. The day prior, 687 new cases were logged in the Palmetto State.
The KN95 mask blunder comes as site officials and contractors planned and now begin a transition back to normal operations, a piecemeal, gated approach that could take weeks to complete and would be jeopardized by a surge of fresh COVID-19 cases.
The site shifted to essential mission-critical operations exclusively earlier this year, a decision that coincided with stay-at-home orders issued by Republican Govs. Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Brian Kemp of Georgia. That posture dramatically reduced the amount of people reporting for work on-site as well as the volume of work done. (National security missions, such as tritium, were prioritized and continued.)
"As SRS proceeds with a measured approach to increase operations," the Energy Department spokesperson previously said, "we will continue to monitor and assess local conditions and local restrictions and adjust the pace and scope of activities as necessary."
Phase one of the pivot back was authorized to begin late last month.
The federal government faced mounting pressure to acquire masks and other protective gear as the coronavirus crisis made its way, generally speaking, out of China, across Europe and into the U.S. Some people and companies are accused of exploiting the frenzy.
In early April, for example, the Department of Justice announced an Atlanta man had been arrested and charged with fraud for "attempting to sell millions of nonexistent respirator masks" to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Justice Department last week said a Chinese manufacturer was charged for allegedly producing and exporting to the U.S. nearly a half-million misbranded and defective masks.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent monitor, in mid-May reported masks were being "set aside" at the Savannah River Site.