Updated 3:30 p.m. Thursday with a response from the Padda Institute.
JEFFERSON CITY — Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office sent cease-and-desist letters to three St. Louis businesses in response to complaints the companies were selling protective masks at inflated prices.
Two of the businesses say the allegations are unfounded.
The office, in a news release issued Wednesday, said it had received a complaint that Olive Supermarket, a grocery store in University City, was selling 50-packs of “medical isolation masks” for $50. Packs of similar masks typically retail for between $5.50 and $9.74, according to the release.
But John Jiang, manager of Olive Supermarket, told the Post-Dispatch he didn’t sell the masks to the public, only to health care workers who couldn’t get them. The supermarket sold out a few days ago and wasn’t getting more, he said.
Jiang also said he’d given away masks for free, including 1,000 to SSM Health and 1,000 to Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“I don’t want to make money from those masks,” he said. “I feel so bad because I try everything I can to help people.”
Dr. Tammie Benzinger, professor of Radiology and Neurological Surgery at Washington University’s School of Medicine, confirmed that Jiang donated the masks to the Barnes-Jewish, which is a teaching hospital affiliated with the medical school.
Benzinger said in an email that the masks went to patients in Alzheimer’s research who had to show up in-person for clinical trials, clinical research staff and nurses.
“Furthermore, it is almost impossible to get these supplies right now, so the donation was in fact priceless for the safety and peace of mind of these health care workers, patients, and their family members coming to the hospital,” Benzinger said.
She said she’s been looking into buying from China, where prices are higher than what Olive Supermarket was selling the masks for.
Jiang said the attorney general’s office has no idea what the market price for the masks are. He said there’s no way that 50-packs of the masks would be selling for $5 or $9 right now.
Schmitt’s office also said it received multiple complaints that BWELL Pharmacy, an independent pharmacy in St. Louis’ North Hampton neighborhood, was selling N95 respirator masks for $20 each.
A person answering the pharmacy’s phone declined to comment.
A third complaint alleged the Padda Institute's Center for Interventional Pain Management, a clinic also in the North Hampton neighborhood, offered one of its patients an N95 mask for $25. The Padda Institute didn’t return requests for comment Wednesday.
But Dr. Gurpreet Padda, an anesthesiologist, said Thursday that the clinic doesn't sell N95 masks, has never sold them and doesn't sell any retail products.
"If a patient reported they were offered a N95 mask for sale from the Center for Interventional Pain Management, this would be an inaccurate statement," Padda wrote in an email to attorney general's office, which he forwarded to the Post-Dispatch.
Padda sent the email Wednesday morning and said the attorney general's office hasn't responded to him, apart from acknowledging that they received it.
Padda also said his clinic has been proactive during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he'd reached out to elected officials, including Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, about two weeks ago to offer up a 13-bed surgical facility. (Nasheed confirmed to the Post-Dispatch that she'd talked to Padda about the offer.)
Single N95 masks normally sell for $1.07 to $5.99 at stores like Home Depot and CVS, according to the news release.
The attorney general’s office said the businesses “indicated that supply costs have increased the price of the masks they are selling,” according to the release. The office said it is continuing to work with them on the issue.
The Post-Dispatch reported last week that the state also received complaints that Tactical (expletive), a gun supply store in St. Peters, was selling N95 masks for $12.
Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Wednesday the office had taken no enforcement action against the store. He said the office has gotten three complaints in total, but said investigators were unable to reach the people who complained to get more detail.
Missourians across the state also reported multiple cases of increased prices for food, toilet paper and hand sanitizer to the attorney general’s office in March.
“We’re going to continue to investigate these instances and work with companies and individuals across the state to ensure that price gouging is rooted out and stopped,” Schmitt said in statement.
The attorney general’s office encouraged anyone who sees price gouging to report it by calling the consumer protection hotline at 800-392-8222 or submitting a complaint online.
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