An Indiana hospital theft shows face masks and hand sanitizer are now as sought-after as drugs

Liquid gold.
Liquid gold.
Image: REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
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On April 15, the pharmacy director at an Indiana hospital contacted the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to report a theft: Someone had pilfered 30 pre-filled syringes of morphine the night before, valued at more than $500. Authorities quickly arrested a woman who works for a cleaning company that services the facility, Central Indiana Cancer Centers, and her friend.

But the real score wasn’t the drugs, which the duo told police they planned to re-sell for $3,000. It was the seven boxes of medical-grade isolation masks, 20 bottles of hand sanitizer, 10 containers of soap, eight bottles of air deodorizer, six packages of bleach wipes, and 50 tubs of Sani-wipes—an item many large retailers are having trouble keeping in stock these days.

“Based on my training and experience, I know these items are highly sought after in the secondary market due to shortages resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic and that these types of items are being sold on the secondary market at an increased price well over fair market value,” DEA task force officer Jason Homan said in a criminal complaint filed in Indiana federal court.

Drug theft in healthcare facilities is a growing problem in the US. Some studies show that up to 10% of pharmacists, nurses, and anesthesiologists are stealing drugs at work. The organized theft of personal protective equipment, or PPE, however, is a much more recent phenomenon. Police arrested a housekeeping employee at an Arizona hospital earlier this month for allegedly swiping gloves, hand sanitizer, surgical scrubs, paper towels, face masks, bleach, and toilet paper. In Florida, police busted a physician’s assistant after hospital workers spotted him loading large amounts of PPE into his Jaguar XF. And burglars recently made off with $250,000 worth of PPE in Hawaii.

The theft of PPE, and their sale on the secondary market at much higher prices, is contributing to shortages at US hospitals, many of which are struggling to obtain enough PPE to keep caregivers safe. As Quartz reported, federal authorities recently opened an investigation into a New York City pharmacist allegedly selling PPE at up to 15 times the regular price. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has established anti-hoarding measures for medical-grade face masks, and the Department of Justice formed a task force to fight hoarding and price gouging.

It didn’t take much effort for investigators to identify the Indiana suspects. Access card data pointed to someone on the cleaning crew, and security video caught them lifting the morphine while attempting to cover their faces with white lab coats. A manager identified one of the pair as his employee.

If convicted on all counts, the two face up to 70 years in prison and fines of up to $2.5 million.