Prison Staff in Washington State Given 'Expired' Face Masks to Reduce Spread of Coronavirus—But Use is Voluntary

Washington State Department of Corrections staff members who come into close contact with inmates are now being issued "expired" N95 respirators to wear on a voluntary basis.

The respirators, designed to filter out potentially-dangerous airborne particles, are being handed to staff working with those who are incarcerated in state correctional facilities, work release centers, or being supervised under community custody, the department confirmed in a media release published Friday.

The masks are for "general use" and will not be mandatory, echoing guidance from by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House.

The Department of Corrections said it "understands that staff represent a point of vulnerability" in potentially bringing the infectious novel coronavirus (COVID-19) into a prison.

Officials said the rollout could "reduce the chances" of transferring the disease into facilities, which have heightened screening, cleaning, and social distancing measures.


Nine department staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 to date, while one incarcerated person contracted it while housed at an external medical center, where they have remained since.

There have been no positive test results for COVID-19 among the incarcerated population currently housed across Washington state correctional facilities, the department said. In total, 149 tests for the disease have been completed, with 117 returning negative and 32 are pending, as of Friday.

The Department of Corrections stressed that expired N95 face masks are still of use, which aligns with some research and comments made by medical experts and healthcare officials.

It said, "In times of increased demand and decreased supply, consideration can be made to use the N95 respirators past their manufacturer-designated shelf life when responding to COVID-19. These expired N95 respirators are for general use and an additional level of protection at this time."

The New York Times reported last month tens of thousands of N95 masks sent out to states from the federal government were expired, indicating they may not be suitable for hospital use. Experts say the face masks can be used after their expiration date if key sections remain intact.

"The only part that is subject to damage over time are the elastic bands that attach the mask to the user's face, which can be damaged by sunlight," Dr. John Balmes, professor of environmental health science at Berkeley Public Health, told Business Insider last month in an email.

On Friday, the CDC recommended wearing face coverings when in public settings, especially where other social distancing measures prove difficult to maintain, such as retail stores and pharmacies.

It also advised the use of "simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others."

"Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure," the agency said.

Experts say a "significant portion" of people with COVID-19 lack symptoms, and can unknowingly spread the virus to others if they go out in public, via speaking, coughing or sneezing. The CDC says expired N95 masks can be used during times of "increased demand and decreased supply."

President Donald Trump this week expressed shock that 3M, the company who manufactures the N95 face respirators now in high demand, had been supplying them to other countries.

According to 3M, his administration invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA), requiring the firm to prioritize face mask orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In a statement, 3M rejected the suggestion it should stop exporting masks the Canadian and Latin American market, as doing so would have "significant humanitarian implications."

The Guardian reported today that the U.S. was accused of "modern piracy" by Germany's interior minister for Berlin state, Andreas Geisel, after a shipment of masks that was intended for the country's police officers was diverted to America after being transferred between planes in Thailand.

At a press briefing with the so-called Coronavirus Task Force yesterday, the president stressed his belief that the virus outbreak is "going to spill over" and rejected wearing a face mask.

Trump said, "So with the masks, it's going to be, really, a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don't have to do it. I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that's okay. It may be good. Probably will. They're making a recommendation. It's only a recommendation."

The U.S. now has the most novel coronavirus infections of any country in the world, with more than 278,000 positive cases. According to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University, there have been at least 7,159 COVID-19-linked deaths, while 9,897 people are believed to have made a recovery.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks.
  • Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • COVID-19 can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
N95 respirator mask
Close-up of N95 respirator mask during an outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus, San Francisco, California, March 30, 2020. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty