The Biden administration has announced that it will distribute hundreds of millions of free, high-quality masks throughout the country — something the public has long requested, particularly amid a wave of the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant omicron.
President Joe Biden revealed on Wednesday that the White House will distribute 400 million non-surgical N95 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile for free. The stockpile currently has more than 750 million N95 masks, triple what was there in January 2021 after the administration used the Defense Production Act to ramp up mask production.
According to the White House, the mask distribution program will be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in the country’s history.
“To ensure accessing these masks is easy and convenient, the Administration is leveraging the federal retail pharmacy program and the federal community health center program, so that free masks are available at many of the same convenient and trusted locations Americans go to get vaccinated and boosted,” a White House official said. “N95 masks will be available for the public to pick up at tens of thousands of local pharmacies, as well as at thousands of community health centers across the country.”
Dawn O’Connell, the Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, testified before senators during a hearing last week on the pandemic response that the N95s in the Strategic National Stockpile are sourced from 12 domestic manufacturers.
“We are also in the process of putting out an agreement for warm base manufacturing so we’re able to keep this capacity that we currently have going, even when demand diminishes,” O’Connell said.
The White House said it will start to ship the masks at the end of the week, and that those masks will start to be available at pharmacies and community health centers late next week. By early February, the program is expected to be in full swing. Politico first reported the plan’s details on Tuesday.
The plan is part of a greater, albeit late, effort to make sure Americans have access to higher-quality masks during a record surge in COVID-19 cases. While research has shown those masks better protect people against the virus, health officials are not changing guidance to specifically recommend against cloth masks, which are not very protective against the omicron variant. N95s are the most effective masks for preventing virus transmission.
The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Jan. 12.
Biden first mentioned his administration’s plan to distribute free masks a week ago, when he also revealed the White House was doubling its procurement of rapid COVID-19 tests to be delivered for free to Americans through a government website. That site was made available on Tuesday.
There has been growing pressure for the president and the federal government to do more to assist people in obtaining at-home COVID-19 tests and high-quality masks. Public health experts and former Biden transition advisers also tried to pressure the White House to provide free masks, arguing that authentic and affordable N95s are still very difficult to find.