Trump Admin Paying Huge Premium for Mask-Cleaning Machines That Don't Do the Job

The president pressured the FDA to waive rules for mask-cleaning machines that ballooned to 10 times the original cost, but the process may damage the masks

A file photo of an N95 respirator mask.
Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It sounded like a great deal: The White House coronavirus task force would buy a defense company’s new cleaning machines to allow critical protective masks to be reused up to 20 times. And at $60 million for 60 machines on April 3, the price was right.

But over just a few days, the potential cost to taxpayers exploded to $413 million, according to notes of a coronavirus task force meeting obtained by NBC News. By May 1, the Pentagon pegged the ceiling at $600 million in a justification for awarding the deal without an open bidding process or an actual contract. Even worse, scientists and nurses say the recycled masks treated by these machines begin to degrade after two or three treatments, not 20, and the company says its own recent field testing has only confirmed the integrity of the masks for four cycles of use and decontamination.

Nurses in several places across the country now say they are afraid of being at greater risk of acquiring COVID-19 while using N95 masks, which they say often don’t fit correctly after just a few spins through a cleaning system that uses vapor phase hydrogen peroxide to disinfect them.

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The nurses, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from their employers or the government, said they believe the machines, which are made by the Battelle Memorial Institute and have been promoted by President Donald Trump, were rushed into service as a shortcut to acquiring and manufacturing protective equipment.

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