White House official stated that the Biden administration will make 400 million N95 masks available for free at thousands of locations across the country, as health experts stress the importance of high-quality face coverings to protect against the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The plan entails cooperating with pharmacies and community health centers to distribute nonsurgical masks from the Strategic National Stockpile. According to a White House official, the administration will begin shipments this week and hopes to have the program fully operational by early February.
“We know that these masks provide better protection than cloth masks,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, the administration’s Covid testing coordinator, in an interview.
The N95 masks will be made available to everybody, and recipients will not be prioritized based on vulnerability to Covid, income, or other criteria. Inglesby said the administration was “confident that people who want to access them will be able to access them,” but it was not immediately clear how many masks a person could receive at one time.
The White House website to order free at-home Covid tests went live Tuesday. The website says: “Every home in the U.S. is eligible to order 4 free at-home COVID-19 tests. The tests are completely free. Orders will usually ship in 7-12 days.”
According to Inglesby, the new approach to providing masks and tests is part of a longer-term strategy to support supplies far beyond the omicron variant, as public health officials acknowledge that the virus may require prevention, mitigation, and treatment in addition to vaccines.
As the number of Covid hospitalizations has increased due to the highly contagious omicron variant, some public health experts have heavily criticized President Joe Biden for not doing more to encourage people to wear N95 or KN95 masks rather than less protective cloth masks.
Officials in the administration are divided on how strongly to encourage people to wear high-filtration masks, such as N95 respirators. Some have recommended for greater availability of the N95 variety, while others have expressed concern that discouraging cloth masks may lead to people stopping wearing masks altogether if they do not like the fit of the N95.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its general public mask guidance on Friday, stating that people “may choose” to wear N95 and KN95 masks because they provide the best protection against Covid. However, the agency stopped short of recommending that people choose certain masks over others.
Higher-quality masks increase the time it takes Covid to spread between people.
During the initial days of the pandemic, people in the United States were advised to leave N95 masks and KN95 masks made in China for healthcare workers. However, the United States has since increased its manufacturing capacity, and the country now has a stockpile of 750 million N95 masks as part of the Strategic National Stockpile for health care workers.
According to a White House official, the distribution of 400 million masks would be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history.
Some members of Congress have pushed Biden to address the financial costs of Covid tests and masks more aggressively in order to shift the burden away from U.S. households. The N95 masks can be purchased for as little as $1 and reused several times, but they can cost more than reusable cloth masks over time.
Last week, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other Democrats in trying to push for a bill that would provide three N95 masks to every person living in the United States, while a group of medical experts who advised Biden during the transition publicly encouraged the White House to give people vouchers to buy masks from retailers.
Inglesby said that the administration was “absolutely preparing for the possibility of additional variants in the future” and that people could expect the government to make N95 masks “more and more available.”