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Masks sent to Maryland from federal stockpile in coronavirus crisis ’technically past’ suggested shelf life

Face masks delivered to Maryland from national stockpiles were past the recommended use date when cleared for use by the federal government, according to the state Health Department.

The masks from the Strategic National Stockpile “were technically past” the manufacturer’s suggested shelf life, department spokesman Charles Gischlar said in an email in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.

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Gischlar said the masks — which are in short supply across the country as the coronavirus spreads — were certified for use under a decades-old program in which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration samples drugs, masks and other health and safety tools to determine if they can still be effective.

Maryland has received "two waves of Strategic National Stockpile shipments since March 13” totaling 274,000 masks — 191,000 surgical masks and 83,000 N95 masks, Gischlar said. N95 masks filter the air and are sometimes called “respirators.”

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The masks in the first shipment were past their suggested shelf lives, but were approved for distribution through the federal Shelf-Life Extension Program, or SLEP, Gischlar said.

The program is designed “to avoid the need to replace entire stockpiles every few years at significant expense,” according to an online FDA description. It said the program recognizes “through testing that certain products remained stable beyond their labeled expiration dates when properly stored.”

“Currently, there have been minimal concerns about SLEP items” in Maryland, Gischlar said.

It was uncertain if the masks in the second shipment were also technically expired. Gischlar referred further inquiries about that to the FDA, which manages the extension program. Reached by email, the FDA provided general information about expired products, but did not address particular shipments.

In online advice for healthcare professionals, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that in a crisis, face masks may be used beyond their manufacturer-suggested lives.

“The user should visually inspect the product prior to use and, if there are concerns (such as degraded materials or visible tears), discard the product,” the CDC said. If no masks are available, health care professionals treating COVID-19 patients might use bandanas or scarves “as a last resort,” it said.

In Pennsylvania, the health department said the state had discovered stockpile-supplied, expired N95 masks dating to the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009, ABC News reported. The department said the expired masks have a failure rate of 5% to 10%, “meaning they may not be able to maintain a tight fit and allow dangerous particles and droplets to enter,” ABC reported. “In some cases, the elastic band could disintegrate all together.”

In response to inquiries, Gischlar said Friday the health department would research the failure rate in Maryland, but did not have an immediate response.

Maryland Hospital Association spokeswoman Amy Goodwin said the organization had not heard concerns related to extending the masks’ shelf lives.

Across the country, medical professionals are increasingly desperate to find ways to extend the use of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, as demand exceeds supply amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Mask “supplies are getting thin,” said Bob Atlas, the Maryland Hospital Association’s president and CEO. “There’s certainly not enough to deal with the expected increase in patients,” he said.

Business, universities, volunteer groups and others have tried to fill in the gaps.

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T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based money management firm, said last week that it donated 130,000 N95 masks to support health care providers in Maryland and Colorado.

Wallace Loh, the president of the University of Maryland, College Park, tweeted Monday that the university retrieved more than 10,000 N95 and surgical face masks from emergency stockpiles it stored more than 15 years ago and donated them to the University of Maryland Medical System.

Some supplies have come to states from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, a large store of medical supplies for use when normal stocks are depleted in emergencies in the U.S. The stockpile is stored in locations across the country.

The federal government does not specify the exact locations of warehouses, but members of the Maryland Air National Guard have helped distribute equipment from one stockpile near Baltimore.

Airmen from the 175th Wing, based at Warfield Air National Guard Base at Martin State Airport in Middle River, assisted in “sorting medical equipment and supplies, preparing them for shipment and loading them on trucks to be distributed across the state," the Air Force said last week.

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