PORTLAND, Ore. — The federal government is trying to get rid of more than one million new, unexpired N95 and KN95 masks by putting them up for government surplus auction, despite strong demand for the high-quality masks during the omicron variant surge.
The General Services Administration (GSA), which regularly holds auctions on surplus federal assets, had more than a dozen separate listings in January for masks and protective face coverings.
It is not clear why the U.S. government is looking to unload the masks — most are still in cardboard boxes, shrink wrapped and stored on pallets.
All the masks up for bid on the GSA auction website appeared to come from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Roseburg VA Health Care System, for example, offered 1,000 KN95 masks to the highest bidder, along with other items listed as “UNUSED MEDICAL SUPPLIES.”
KGW inspected the masks at a VA warehouse in Roseburg before the auction closed on January 14. The white masks stamped KN95 appeared new, wrapped in large a plastic bag and packed in an unmarked cardboard box.
A handwritten note, “No longer used on station,” was written on an official VA form, explaining why the masks were being sold.
The highest bid at auction was $460, although the reserve price – or lowest price accepted for the items – was not met. It’s not clear if the masks will be listed again.
“Why isn’t Veterans Affairs turning to other offices?” asked Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group in Washington D.C. “If one office can’t use them, I'm pretty sure that some others may. Federal and state government offices could use those masks.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs in Louisville, Kentucky sold more than 130,000 N95 masks manufactured by 3M in a government surplus auction on January 12. The highest bidder paid roughly $62,000, or 47 cents per mask. For comparison, the same 3M surgical masks are selling on Amazon for roughly $2.45 per mask.
“Somebody will come in and bid on them. They’ll buy them at a reduced rate and then they’ll circulate them. They’ll put them on eBay or they’ll end up on Amazon,” explained Amey.
Most of the masks the government is trying to get rid of are high quality surgical masks or respirators, which still have plenty of shelf life.
The 7,200 masks being auctioned off by a VA medical center in South Carolina have an expiration date of July 31, 2023. The Makrite N95 masks are approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that cloth masks do not offer as much protection as N95 or KN95 respirators, namely because they can filter out 95 percent of all airborne particles.
Demand for quality masks has only increased as infections with the highly contagious omicron variant continue to soar.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it will make 400 million N95 masks available to Americans for free starting next week. The masks, which are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile, will be made available through local pharmacies and community health centers.
Nationwide, the Department of Veterans Affairs requires everyone who enters VA hospitals, clinics and Vet Centers to wear a mask. Some VA facilities have imposed even stricter requirements, demanding employees, patients and visitors wear N95 or KN95 masks — instead of cloth masks.
The VA has also put tens of thousands of plastic face shields up for public auction in the past month. A high bid of $303 claimed 56,000 new, unopened face shields from the VA in Chillicothe, Ohio. Face shields are often used in high-risk situations or medical settings, in addition to a well-fitting, quality mask.
A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs explained that local VA medical centers evaluate their own inventory to determine current and future clinical needs and storage capacity.
“The decision to dispose of excess materiel balances the purchase cost, storage and inventory management cost and risk of product expiration against the current and projected clinical needs,” wrote Randal Noller of VA in an email to KGW. The agency spokesperson explained using federal surplus auctions allows the VA to recoup some of the purchase cost and offer extra supplies to others, including federal and state agencies, along with the buying public.
“This is on the government,” said Amey. “These are sitting in shrink wrapped boxes, on pallets ready to go and ready to be used and it is in the middle of a pandemic where the public needs them.”
Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.