Faced with pleas from public health professionals to make high-quality masks available to the American public, the Biden administration will announce on Wednesday that it will make 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks available for free in community health centers and retail pharmacies around the country.
The effort, which officials are calling the “biggest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history,” comes only days after the CDC changed its mask advice, recognizing that fabric masks do not provide the same level of protection as surgical masks or respirators.
N95 respirators, so named because they effectively filter out 95% of airborne particles when used properly, were scarce early in the pandemic. The CDC’s new definition of masks states that well-fitting respirators, such as N95s, provide the best protection.
Wednesday also marked the official debut of covidtests.gov, the administration’s new website that allows Americans to request free at-home coronavirus tests. On Tuesday, the site was secretly launched.
The administration has been chastised for not distributing both tests and masks to the public sooner, especially as the omicron variety feeds a massive increase in cases. According to certain public health experts, the federal government should provide N95 masks to every home.
The administration is “actively examining” ways to make high-quality masks available, according to Jeff Zients, President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator.
The White House announced on Wednesday that the government would start distributing N95 masks to pharmacies and health facilities by the end of this week, with the masks likely to be available by the end of next week. The initiative would be fully operational by early February, according to the announcement.
The masks will come from the nation’s emergency reserve, the Strategic National Stockpile, which was severely depleted at the start of the pandemic, leaving health care professionals without masks and other personal protective equipment needed to combat the unique virus.
According to a March investigation by The New York Times, the stockpile has been disproportionately weighted toward protecting against bioterror attacks for years, with over half of its money spent on the anthrax vaccine over the past decade.
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Before the coronavirus, China produced half of the world’s masks, and the country was stockpiling them, putting U.S. hospitals — and the rest of the globe — in desperate need of supplies. Personal protective equipment was still in low supply in the United States as late as December 2020.
The Biden administration has committed to address these flaws. At a Senate hearing last week, Dawn O’Connell, the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for preparedness and response, stated that the stockpile now included 737 million N95 masks manufactured entirely by American producers.
The government is also looking for proposals from companies that can ramp up production to 141 million N95 masks per month in a crisis and then maintain production at a much lower rate when demand is lower, so the country is never caught short again in a public health emergency, according to O’Connell.
She explained that the stockpile is intended to “keep this capacity that we currently have functioning even when demand declines.”