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What dragged N95 face masks into controversy?

  • Published at 09:48 am April 23rd, 2020
mask corona-ppe-personal protective equipment

However, it is yet to be clear on how general masks can be labelled as N95 and get distributed to hospitals without anyone noticing it

March 30 was a good day for the frontline healthcare workers of Mugda General Hospital in Dhaka as they received 300 pieces of N95 masks and another 500 general masks from the government for treating coronavirus patients.

But, the joy soon turned to grief after hospital authorities found that although there were labels of N95 on boxes of 300 face masks, there were no N95 masks inside.

Lawmaker Saber Hossain Chowdhury, also president of management committee of the hospital, in a letter to the Central Medical Stores Depot (CMSD) of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), brought the matter to attention.

CMSD, the government body which sources medical supplies, collected a total of 20,600 face masks from JMI Hospitals Requisite Manufacturing Limited, and later disbursed them to hospitals.

However, it is far from clear how general masks can be labelled as N95 and get distributed to hospitals without anyone noticing it.

Bullet Points 

Govt says general mask packaged under N95 label was a mistake by the supplier

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina bashes authorities, orders strengthening monitoring on PPEs supplied

Over 200 doctors get infected, one died of Covid-19

Survey finds 75% doctors, 40% other health workers received PPEs, but sceptical about quality

Supplier contractor JMI acknowledges the “mistake,” smells conspiracy

When asked, CMSD Director Brig Gen Md Shahidullah told Dhaka Tribune said JMI was not instructed to supply N95, and it was a mistake. 

The CMSD director said JMI had been supplying hand gloves, sanitizers and normal masks for a long time. He said JMI was asked to supply normal masks, but they supplied the normal masks labelled as N95.

“We have show-caused them over the matter. They replied to us saying it was a mistake and we have withdrawn all their masks after the matter came to light,” he said.

Controversy shrouds PPEs too

Frontline healthcare workers have long been demanding quality personal protective equipments (PPEs)to keep them safe and secured from infection while treating Covid-19 patients.

So far, over 200 doctors have been infected and one of them later died of Covid-19, according to Bangladesh Doctors Foundation (BDF).

On April 16, Dr Taher, a medical officer (anaesthetist) of Noakhali General Hospital, in a Facebook post said no one in his department received any N95 or K95, not even FFP2 masks yet from the government.

He accused the health secretary for spreading falsehood over providing masks similar to N95 respirators to healthcare workers. 

However, it was the doctor who faced action, and show-caused for criticizing the ministry. 

As more and more people gathered on the social media to criticize these substandard PPEs and came down harshly on the government for failing to provide real N95 masks to healthcare professionals, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on April 20, directed authorities concerned to strengthen monitoring in order to ensure that genuine masks and other PPEs were supplied to prevent coronavirus transmission.

The premier, during a video conference with government officials, ordered the DGHS and CMSD to monitor if the suppliers are providing or buying the correct materials.

“Boxes carry the labels “N-95 Mask.” But, you have to check whether the materials inside the boxes are genuine,” she said adding that those who receive these [PPEs] should check them properly.

A recent survey by researchers from James P Grant School of Public Health (JPGSPH) at Brac University and Bangladesh Health Watch (BHW), have found that most front line health workers in Bangladesh are in fear of getting infected with Covid-19 as they have doubts over the quality and effectiveness of the PPEs supplied to them.

About 75% of doctors and nurses and 40% of other health workers have questioned the quality after receiving at least one item of PPE, the survey finds after covering 60 respondents from 14 districts and 43 health facilities.

Refuting the allegations of supplying low quality PPEs, CMSD Director Brig Gen Md Shahidullah has said no low-quality PPEs (personal protective equipment) had been supplied to any hospital by the government body.

“Some media outlets have been publishing photos of health workers wearing flimsy gloves. These were not supplied by the CMSD,” he said while speaking on the daily online health bulletin on Wednesday.

“We are supplying close-fitting latex gloves,” he said, adding that a few samples were collected from Dhaka Mohanagar General Hospital and the CMSD found that some organizations had been donating these thin gloves.

At the daily online health briefing on Wednesday, the CMSD director claimed that his office had been checking the quality of the PPEs before supplying them to hospitals.

He urged the hospital authorities to check the quality of PPEs before purchasing or taking donations from any organization.

“Directors of some hospitals have taken donations from different organizations and health workers in the hospitals are not aware of it. Sometimes, they take photos and circulate them,” Brig Gen Md Shahidullah stated.

Probe underway

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, following instruction from the prime minister, launched a probe to investigate allegations that substandard masks were supplied to several state-run hospitals, which were supposed to receive N95 masks.

A three member committee was formed to investigate the specifications of the masks, number of masks collected, number of substandard masks delivered, number of substandard masks in stock at CMSD (if any) as well as other factors, and finalize liability if any irregularities are found.

JMI acknowledges “mistake,”smells conspiracy 

JMI Hospitals Requisite Manufacturing Limited Managing Director Md Abdur Razzaq has said his company has been involved in supply of surgical or other masks for over a decade, and the production of N95 masks were under development.

He said they were supplying surgical masks since mid February after they received a requirement of 50,0000 masks from CMSD.

“Most of our senior officials at the depot have not been attending office since the general holiday began, so the general staff were supplying the masks from the depot as the demands went higher because of Covid-19 infection,” he said.

“Those staff have mistakenly supplied 20,600 piece of general masks kept under N95 label for R&D,” he claimed.

The managing director said neither they have received any work order from CMSD for N95 masks, neither have they supplied any N95 masks, even the bill submitted to CMSD has no mention of N95 masks.

"After the issue came to light following allegation raised from Mugda General Hospital, we apologized for the unintentional error and withdrew all the masks supplied under N95 labels," he said.

Some of the masks, which were already sent to some hospitals, were asked by CMSD to be used as general masks, he said. 

He claimed it was not corruption, rather a mistake and actions were taken against the staff responsible for the error. 

He instead blamed a vested quarter for spreading rumours intentionally to harm the company’s reputation.