According to a White House official, the Biden administration plans to distribute hundreds of millions of free, high-quality masks through pharmacies and health centers.
The 400 million new masks will be non-surgical N95s acquired from the government’s Strategic National Stockpile, in an effort to ensure that Americans have access to the more protective masks during a record rise of Covid-19 cases.
The initiative, first reported on Tuesday evening, comes in response to mounting pressure on the administration to encourage Americans to abandon cloth masks in favour of more protective versions, despite evidence that cloth masks are less effective against the more transmissible Omicron variant.
In recent weeks, public health specialists and former Biden transition advisers pressed the White House to distribute masks, claiming that affordable and authentic N95s are still hard to come by.
According to a White House official, the administration aims to make the masks available at tens of thousands of pharmacies and health facilities by early February, and people will be able to pick them up for free.
Child-sized masks will not be included in the shipment, though two sources familiar with the situation said the government is working to obtain them.
Nonetheless, it is the largest federal initiative to distribute face coverings since the outbreak began. Last year, the Biden administration distributed more than 30 million masks to high-risk communities, however they were fabric masks.
This new initiative comes after weeks of debate over whether the administration should intervene to distribute N95 masks, with some senior officials doubtful that doing so would make a meaningful impact in halting the spread.
Several states have already repealed their mask laws, and in the deep red areas hardest struck by Covid-19, there is little enthusiasm for mask use or other preventive measures that have been fiercely politicised during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has refused to amend its recommendations to propose that everyone wear high-quality masks such as N95s rather than cloth coverings.
However, with Omicron instances and hospitalizations reaching new highs, supporters of a new distribution programme claimed that the government should play a role in making the masks more widely available.
Last week, President Joe Biden gave a sneak peek at the proposal, admitting that getting high-quality masks is “not always affordable or convenient” for some people.
During a speech unveiling a new plan to deploy the military to support hospitals, Biden said, “I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks.” “I get it. But they’re a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable Omicron variant.”
Later on Wednesday, Biden is set to attend a press conference to defend the administration’s attempts to contain the Omicron surge and promote the mask plan.
The 400 million masks are little over half of the federal stockpile that officials have been working to replace since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, when severe shortages prompted frontline health workers to make their own personal protective equipment and re-wear masks for many days.
The Strategic National Stockpile includes more than 750 million N95 masks, according to a White House official, with enough for health providers and the general public to purchase.