Two of the counterfeit "N95" masks distributed by the city of New Orleans through a giveaway program. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Late last month, the city of New Orleans began giving away what it said were N95 masks — considered the best commonly available face coverings to protect against COVID-19 — to the public at New Orleans Public Library branches. But The Lens has learned that at least some of the free N95 masks the city has been distributing are counterfeits. 

The masks are labeled as “N95s,” and in public announcements, the city has said they are N95s. But the masks available at the giveaways have not gotten the requisite approval from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH — a federal agency responsible for certifying personal protective equipment. 

Any mask being marketed as an N95 without NIOSH approval is a counterfeit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

N95 masks provide a much higher degree of prevention against COVID infection than surgical masks or cloth masks, especially when it comes to the recent omicron variant of the virus. The masks are supposed to filter out 95 percent of tiny airborne particles. 

According to a statement attributed to the city’s Health Department, the masks being distributed by the city still provide protection from the virus, even if they aren’t NIOSH-approved. 

“It is true that many N95s currently in circulation in the U.S. right now have not been NIOSH approved. The masks are still protective, though they may not meet the strict criteria set for N95s by NIOSH. Everyone should assess their comfort level and need for protection when selecting masks. Current CDC guidance does not specify a type or level of mask for the general public.”

The statement also said that the masks were donated to the city by Bank of America “earlier in the pandemic.” The Lens was unable to find an official act of donation from the bank on the city’s online purchasing database. And the Mayor’s Office did not provide any records of the donation. Bank of America did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

The city began distributing free “N95 masks” at several public library locations on Dec. 28, as the omicron variant was causing record-breaking case counts. 

“[The New Orleans Health Department] strongly urges the use of high-quality masks like surgical masks, N95, and KN95 to best stop the spread of this disease,” the city said in a Dec. 28 press release. 

It’s unclear whether all of the masks given out since then have been inauthentic. The counterfeit N95s were the only ones available at the Main Branch of the Library on Friday. One city worker, who asked that their name not be published, told The Lens that the city has been handing out the same brand of masks throughout the entire giveaway. 

The masks have several telltale signs of being counterfeit. Perhaps the most obvious indication is that the masks only say “N95” on them, without any additional information. Real NIOSH-approved N95s are supposed to have several additional markers on them, including the manufacturer name, “NIOSH” written in bold upper-case letters and a specific “TC” approval number for the product.

The masks distributed by the city also have ear loops, while NIOSH-approved N95s only have straps that go behind your head, according to the CDC. 

More information on how to spot counterfeit masks can be found on the CDC’s website.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...