The Biden administration intends to distribute 400 million free N95 masks to Americans in the coming weeks, sourced from the country’s strategic stockpile, as the country faces a record surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.
According to a White House official, the free masks will be distributed to the public at thousands of local pharmacies and community health centers across the country beginning late next week, marking “the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.”
It comes at the same time as the administration launched a program to provide free at-home COVID tests to Americans who request them through the website COVIDtests.gov.
“I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” President Biden said last week.
The new details are expected to be announced by the president in remarks on Wednesday. He’ll hold a press conference at the White House at 4 p.m. ET. The initiative builds on the several million reusable cloth masks distributed for free by his administration last year through organizations such as health centers and food banks.
“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it. But there is — they’re a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable Omicron variant,” Mr. Biden said.
The president’s decision comes just a week after the CDC revised its mask-wearing guidance to make it clear that certain types of masks “offer higher levels of protection than others.” Well-fitting N95 respirators filter 95 percent of airborne particles, and KN95 masks offer a similar level of protection.
Supplies were scarce early in the pandemic, and the CDC advised Americans to reserve N95 masks for healthcare workers, but there is no longer a shortage.
For months, some health experts have urged people to upgrade their masks to these more protective options, which officials now say are “widely available” across the country.
However, they acknowledge that N95 respirators may be uncomfortable for some people to wear — and that many Americans avoid wearing even basic masks entirely.
The stockpile’s inventory of N95 respirators was 59 times larger at the end of last month than it was before the pandemic.