Jan. 19, 2022 -- The Biden administration will offer 400 million high-quality masks to Americans for free at retail pharmacies and community health centers across the country.
The nonsurgical N95 masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile, according to Politico. The plan is a response to growing pressure from public health experts to encourage Americans to stop using cloth masks that don’t work as well against the Omicron variant.
Well-fitting masks, including N95s, can filter out 95% of airborne particles when used correctly. The federal government will begin shipping masks by the end of this week, and some will be available at the end of next week, the White House told The New York Times.
The masks will be available at tens of thousands of pharmacies and health centers by early February, the White House said. President Joe Biden will formally announce the plan on Wednesday afternoon.
The supply distribution won’t include child-sized masks, though the federal government is trying to get some, Politico reported.
The CDC issued new guidance on Friday that said people should wear high-quality masks such as N95s, rather than cloth face coverings, to prevent the spread of Omicron. Following the guidance, public health officials called for the government to distribute masks that may be hard to find.
But some senior administration officials have said that giving out N95s may not make much of a difference in slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Several states have already dropped their mask mandates, and in states where masks have been heavily politicized, many people have stopped wearing them, Politico reported.
Still, the Biden administration decided to move forward with the plan. Biden hinted at the initiative last week, saying that obtaining high-quality masks is “not always affordable or convenient” and that an announcement would come this week about how to get them for free.
“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks,” he said. “I get it. But they’re a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable Omicron variant.”
The 400 million masks represent a little more than half of the federal stockpile of 750 million N95 masks, which come from 12 domestic manufacturers, Politico reported. The remaining supply is available for health providers and for purchase.
The federal government is also seeking proposals from companies that can produce 140 million N95 masks per month in a crisis, the Times reported.