Finnish healthcare workers have received face masks and equipment marked with use-by dates in 2012.
The out-of-date equipment was sent to hospitals after the government ordered the National Emergency Supply Agency (Nesa) to open its stockpiles and supply urgently-needed protective equipment to frontline staff.
Yle has seen masks that have use-by dates in 2012. The manufacturer, 3M, says that any mask past its use-by date should not be used as it may not offer full protection.
"Maybe not everything from Nesa has been quite up-to-date," said Lasse Lehtonen, head of diagnostics at the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district.
"The reality is that they have been stored in emergency warehouses for years. There could be problems with some of the items."
"No critical shortages"
On Wednesday, Social Affairs and Health Minister Aino-Kaisa Pekonen had said the supply of protective equipment was under control.
"The situation with regard to protective equipment for healthcare workers is good on a national level, but there are areas that need a re-supply of protective materials," said Pekonen. "There is no critical shortage of personnel or equipment in our hospitals."
When the ministry opened the stockpiles last week, it said that there is a good number of face masks, and ‘they are not running out’.
That was a premature statement, according to Lehtonen.
"Maybe it was a bit of an exaggeration from the ministry," said Lehtonen. "The situation has not really been as good as that."
Healthcare workers are now faced with a simple question: Is it safe to use a face mask past its use-by date?
The manufacturer does not recommend it. Parts on the mask could weaken, making the mask less than airtight.
In addition, old masks can allow through things that should not get through, for instance droplets carrying coronavirus.
Nesa checked the safety of the masks before supplying them to hospitals. The Technical Research Centre VTT conducted these tests.
Not every mask was tested, with just a selection sent to the lab. Those masks passed the tests, according to Nesa's Basic Supply Director Jyrki Hakola.
"VTT's tests found they met the specifications required for use," said Hakola.
Yle sources suggest that some of the masks sent to HUS hospitals have rubber bands that are so old they can not be securely attached to the wearer’s face.
Hakola suggests fixing those masks on the fly, adding that healthcare workers should use their common sense in assessing whether or not to use out-of-date masks.
"f there are rubber bands that are totally unusable and they can’t be used at all, then of course nobody will use them," said Hakola. "That’s a bit like putting on leaky boots, walking into the yard in the rain, and saying that your feet are wet."
These masks were purchased during the H1N1 influenza epidemic in 2009.
"They were stashed away for emergencies," said Hakola. "Now it’s come, and they are being used. They would not have been used if there had been a sufficient amount stashed away elsewhere."
On Friday, Nesa said it had ordered large numbers of respirator masks from China.
Hakola declined to provide any further details such as the cost or size of the orders.