Groups warn of counterfeit masks as higher quality masks are sought

This week, the CDC labeled the omicron variant the dominant strain in the United States, but local numbers had already indicated omicron's ability to rapidly spread here in Washington.

According to UW Medicine experts, 70% of sampled positive cases were linked to the omicron variant as of last week. The expectation is that the percentage will rise, and overall cases will increase in the coming weeks.

King County – where more than 85% of residents have completed their vaccine series, per Public Health Seattle & King County – recently moved back into the CDC’s "high transmission" rate, the highest rate the CDC gives. Jefferson County is the only county that isn’t at that stage in all of Puget Sound.

"We are really encouraging folks to get masks that fit well, that are like KN-95 or equivalent that [have] a good barrier between you and others," said Public Health interim director Dennis Worsham. 

counterfeit N95 surgical masks that were seized by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

During the early months of the pandemic, higher quality masks were not recommended, but that directive changed a long time ago, and with omicron rapidly spreading across the U.S. more and more people are trying to find safe masks.

"It’s not just the brand, and it’s not just the standard, it’s the whole thing," cautioned Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95. "Is it a legitimate product? Is it made to the standard? Is it from a real source, or has someone made a counterfeit?"

Miller’s group has helped connect people with more than 12 million legitimate masks, while donating an excess of 2 million masks. Their website, where you can shop online here, ensures that the masks they sell are real. They also buy in bulk, which allows them to drive down the cost of masks for everyday individuals.

According to Miller, Project N95 routinely discovers fake masks from people who reach out for direction.

In Washington state, more than 2 million counterfeit masks were found within hospitals. A larger national investigation uncovered more than 10 million that had been purchased by healthcare providers across the country – highlighting the concern.

In the past week the CDC updated their website with tips on spotting fakes, and/or falsely marketed products. Some trade groups have estimated as many as half – or more – masks being sold as N-95 or KN-95 masks are fake.

"I know people who work really hard for their money, and they should know they have protection," said Miller, who lost a loved-one to COVID-19 herself. "They should know they have protection, you shouldn’t go out think you’re safe, and then end up not being protected."

For more information on Project N95 you can visit their website, here. Or you can shop online, here.

RELATED: CDC data: Omicron now dominant COVID-19 variant in US

READ MORE: Delta still dominant COVID strain in Washington, but officials worry

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