A potential legal battle is brewing over more than $8 million the state spent on masks it purchased for COVID-19 protection that are believed to be faulty.

Earlier this week, the state recalled 48,000 KN95 masks because they failed to meet standards.

Missouri Department of Public Safety (DPS) Director Sandy Karsten said the state ordered and purchased masks from three vendors but that she would not release the names of those vendors. Karsten said she is limited in what details she can provide because of potential litigation. 

The state purchased two versions of the masks. KN95 masks are a version of N95 masks that are made in China. Initially the FDA did not clear KN95 masks because of fraud concerns, but as demand from the spread of COVID-19 grew, that changed.

In the first case, Karsten said, the state ordered 360,000 KN95 masks for $1.1 million. The state received 88,630 of those masks and the vendor agreed to refund the full amount and picked up the unused items Friday. 

In the second case, the state ordered 5 million N95 masks for more than $16.5 million. The state paid 50%, or over $8.25 million, of the total in advance. The vendor, which had yet to deliver any of the order, agreed to cancel the order and return the full advance payment to the state Wednesday. 

According to Mike O'Connell, communications director at the Missouri Department of Public Safety, the state sought the preemptive cancellation of the N95 mask order because of concerns of instances of fraud around the country. 

In the third case, the state ordered more than 3.9 million KN95 masks for more than $16.5 million, of which the state paid 50%, or more than $8.25 million, in advance. The state received almost 101,000 of the masks, and the vendor has refused to refund the advance payment. 

"As I discussed, we will do everything in our power to recoup the money, which went toward the masks that were not up to the standards and did not provide the protection our first responders and medical professionals deserve for the high-risk work they are performing," Karsten said. "We will continue our efforts to get them quality PPE." 

Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), said one of the standards the KN95 masks failed to meet involved how the masks improperly sealed around the wearer's face.

Karsten also provided updates on DPS' other efforts throughout the state.

Since the problematic masks were recalled, the state warehouse received more than 250,000 N95 masks, which are being distributed by a team that includes SEMA, the Missouri Department of Transportation, DHSS and the Missouri Division of Fire Safety. Karsten said the state is expecting and additional 12 pallets of face shields and eight pallets of medical gowns Friday evening. 

Karsten also said that the alternate health care site in Florissant, which was created to assist St. Louis-area hospitals, was treating three patients as of Friday.

Reopening the state

Gov. Mike  Parson gave new details about the "Show Me Strong" Recovery Plan to reopen Missouri's economy, which he said includes two phases and rests on four pillars guided by Missouri-specific public health data. 

The four parts involve expanding the state's testing capacity and volume, expanding PPE reserves, monitoring and expanding (if necessary) hospital and health care system capacity and improving potential outbreak predictions with state data. 

Parson said that Missouri is still in the immediate response phase and will soon move to a gradual reopening phase but asked Missouri residents to be patient in the coming weeks. On Thursday he extended the stay-at-home order until May 3.

“Once that date comes in here, on May 4, you’re going to have to be patient again because things will not go back to normal just like we flip a light switch on,” Parson said. “It’s going to take time.”

Parson was also joined by Missouri Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon, who supported Parson's plan and called his decision to extend the state's stay-at-home order through March 3 "definitely the right thing to do." 

"The plan is realistic, deliberate, it's data-driven, and it prioritizes the health care foundation that we need to return to economic activity in our state," Dixon said. 

Dixon also highlighted the assistance Missouri's small businesses have received from the federal government through the U.S. Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. 

Almost 46,500 small businesses in Missouri have been been approved for the program, which makes Missouri tenth in the nation for the number of businesses that have been in approved, Dixon said. All together, the businesses have received more than $7.5 billion, ranking Missouri as 15th in the nation for total dollars approved. 

Additionally, Dixon announced more than $3 million in state broadband grant funding to expand service to 4,000 businesses, farms and homes throughout the state. 

"The challenges that we face today demonstrate, probably more so than ever before, the importance of reliable and fast internet access for our entire state," Dixon said. "It's important to so many things in our life today."

As of 2 p.m. Friday, DHSS reported 5,283 cases of COVID-19 in Missouri, including 165 deaths. This was a jump of 172 cases from Thursday and includes 93 cases in Boone County. 

Watch the full briefing here.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Spring 2020 state government reporter. I am a senior studying data journalism. I can be reached by email at ashlynohara@mail.missouri.edu or on Twitter at @ashlyn_ohara.

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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