Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

Subscribe now to receive emails letting you know about his latest work.

OC Health Care Agency officials have been scrambling daily for weeks to find more N95 protective cloth face masks for a variety of first responders, doctors and nurses, now even authorizing the use of expired masks as a last resort.

Editor’s Note: As Orange County’s only nonprofit & nonpartisan newsroom, Voice of OC brings you the best, most comprehensive local Coronavirus news absolutely free. No ads, no paywalls. We need your help. Please, click here to make a tax-deductible donation today to support your local news.

Yet in February HCA executives sold off as government surplus five huge pallets of protective masks that were expired.

More than 100,000 protective masks were sent to surplus in early February, officials have confirmed.

Later that month, auctioned off five pallets of N95 masks, for just over $122, 716 – which if it’s the full batch would mean they sold for about $1 a piece.

The protective masks, which fit snugly around a person’s face, have become a daily tool in the fight to stop the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, especially among critical workers. They are in short supply across the country and virtually every local public health and elected official all the way up to Congressional level keeps pressing each day to get more into local hands.

About two weeks ago, when Orange County health care workers starting confronting the virus, scrambling public health officials sent out an emergency notice, letting health care providers know it was “last resort” time advising them it was ok to use expired N95 masks to protect frontline health care workers and first responders.

“The worsening COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a scarce supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), including all types of facemasks,” warned a March 20 notice sent out by Dr. Gagandeep S. Grewal, associate medical director of the Orange County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

In that emergency notice, Grewal advised Orange County providers that the Food and Drug Administration had just released an emergency use authorization to use expired masks in the field.

“These masks should be used as a last resort after all other supplies have been exhausted,” Grewal advised.

Around the same time, sources in the field started noticing five huge pallets of expired N95 facemasks that had been auctioned off by the County of Orange through the GovDeals website for excess government property, for just over $122,000.

A box of N95 respirator and surgical masks.

According to Orange County Health Care officials, there were about 2, 975 boxes (which each include 35 individual masks) that were sent to county surplus on Feb. 10 — about 104, 125 masks in total.

An N95 mask.

Health Care Agency officials defended their action saying they auctioned off the materials before the Coronavirus pandemic hit Orange County, adding that the masks used rubber straps as opposed to cloth ones and a few boxes inspected showed deterioration.

“Upon inspection of a supply of expired N95 masks in our warehouse mid-January, staff noted deterioration of the rubber straps that are a necessary component to ensure proper fit,” said Steve Thronson, Director of Regulatory/Medical Health Services with the OC Health Care Agency.

“At that time, these masks were not approved for reuse by the State or Federal government. The damaged items were taken out of inventory and an order for replacements was placed,” Thronson said.

Thronson added that “It’s important to note that we also had 300,000 expired N95s in our warehouse that stayed in our warehouse because they had fabric straps without quality issues.”

He also noted that “Since that time, we’ve received more than 1.3 million N95s from the State.”

Yet Thronson artfully avoids a pretty stark fact, which is that amount still falls well short of the need.

Don’t take my word for it.

In a March 30 story in Voice of OC on the ongoing hospital and response needs across the county, Orange County’s director of public health, David Souleles, laid out the need in stark terms.

“We’re gonna need huge amounts of [personal protective equipment] in the coming weeks, as is every jurisdiction in the country,” Souleles said in an interview with Voice of OC, adding that so far Orange County had distributed over 1 million pieces of protective equipment so far.

So how much protective equipment is needed in Orange County? asked our county reporter, Nick Gerda.

“We’re talking magnitudes of hundreds of thousands and millions of products,” Souleles said.

The current county stockpile of N95 masks is about 250,000 along with another 200,000 surgical masks, according to Thronson.

All local requests for emergency medical equipment are going through the county Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which then makes requests of the state, which in turn gets much of its supplies from a national stockpile.

Souleles and other Orange County elected officials say they are scouring everywhere to find this kind of equipment to protect workers.

“There is a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment everywhere in this country,” Souleles said at a recent news conference.

“We in California are doing our best, with leadership from the state, and with all of our partners, to try and secure as much [protective equipment] as possible to meet the needs here in Orange County.”

Perhaps they should have checked their own warehouses first.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.