As the omicron variant surges and hospitals are pushed to capacity, the White House announced a new program Wednesday to give 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks to Americans free of charge.
According to a White House official, Americans will be able to receive the masks at tens of thousands of local pharmacies and thousands of community health centers across the country. The masks will be shipped at the end of the week and will be available late next week. The program will be in full swing by early February.
At a Jan. 13 press conference announcing additional testing resources, President Joe Biden said masking is “part of your patriotic duty.”
“Covid-19 is one of the most formidable enemies America has ever faced. We’ve got to work together, not against each other. We’re Americans. We can do this,” Biden said on efforts to fight the virus.
The masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile. According to a White House official, the administration has used the Defense Production Act to triple the supply of N95s in the stockpile since January 2021. The government now has over 750 million N95 masks, which will allow them to keep a supply for health care workers while also distributing masks to the public.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance this past week to clarify that people can choose to wear N95 or KN95 masks now that supply shortages have waned. The agency also acknowledged that some masks provide more protection than others, which is an apparent nod to reports that cloth masks do less to protect against the omicron variant.
The administration is touting the new program as an extension of previous efforts around masking, including Biden’s executive order requiring masks in federal buildings and on airplanes and trains. According to a White House official, the administration has already deployed 23.5 million masks and respirators across the country as part of previous programs.
A linchpin of the administration’s effort to thwart the pandemic was stymied by the Supreme Court this past week. Biden had championed the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate as key to overcoming the pandemic that has killed over 800,000 Americans. The court did allow a vaccine mandate for health care workers at federally funded facilities to go forward.
Wednesday also marked the rollout of Biden’s program to send free Covid-19 tests to Americans. All households will be eligible to receive four rapid tests free of charge.