Biden Administration Plans to Provide 400 Million N95 Masks to Americans Amid Omicron Surge

Starting next week, adults can pick up three free masks each at pharmacies, community centers and vaccination sites

An image of President Joe Biden holding up a black mask as he speaks.
With Omicron’s high transmissibility and record number of infections, public health experts encourage the use of high-quality masks to prevent spreading the airborne virus. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Approximately 400 million high-quality, non-surgical N95 masks are set to be distributed by the Biden administration for free, White House officials announced on Wednesday.

Amid surging Covid-19 cases, the announcement comes as a response to evidence that cloth coverings do little to protect against the Omicron variant, reports Politico’s David Lim and Adam Cancryn.

The masks, which are sourced from the government’s Strategic National Stockpile, will be available at federal community health centers, pharmacies, and locations where individuals received their vaccinations, report the Washington Post’s Lena H. Sun and Dan Diamond.

Officials will begin shipping masks this week and should be available for pick up by late next week, according to the White House. By early February, the initiative should be “fully up and running,” reports Peter Sullivan for the Hill. A total of three masks per adult will be handed out. Child-sized masks are currently not available, but according to a U.S. official, high-quality masks for children are anticipated for the near future, the Washington Post reports.

With Omicron’s high transmissibility and record number of infections, public health experts encourage the use of high-quality masks to prevent spreading the airborne virus. According to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University, on average, more than 750,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported every day over the past week, reports CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Paul LeBlanc.

“After surges in July, November, and December, we should expect to see more surges and know that new variants could evade vaccines,” Julia Raifman, a health policy expert at Boston University, said in an email to the Washington Post. “We should prepare to have enough N95 and KN95 masks and tests for everyone in future surges. We should implement data-driven mask policies, so that mask policies automatically turn on and better protect everyone and our society during surges.”

Democrats in Congress pushed the Biden administration to deliver N95 masks to every person in the U.S. for free, and last week, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation to provide three N95 masks to everyone in the country, reports Spencer Kimball for CNBC News. It currently has more than 50 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and Senate.   

N95s and KN95s offer the best protection because they filter out most virus particles and contain markings that indicate their authenticity, per the Washington Post. Confusion over the use of N95s began in April 2020 during the mask shortage when the CDC emphasized that N95s be reserved for healthcare workers in need of personal protective equipment, the Washington Post reports. Instead, they encouraged most individuals to use cloth face coverings, reports Kim Lyons for the Verge

Due to the Omicron and Delta variants, the CDC updated its guidance for the protection offered by different kinds of masks. The new guidelines state that well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, like N95 masks, provide the greatest protection against Covid-19, CNN reports. They also clarified that surgical N95s should be reserved for healthcare settings.

The response is the most significant federal effort to distribute face coverings since the start of the pandemic, per Politico. Last year, the Biden administration did send out more than 30 million masks to high-risk communities, but these were cloth coverings.

Aside from providing masks, the U.S. government is also launched a website where people can order free Covid-19 test kits that will be shipped directly to homes by mail.

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