President Joe Biden’s administration will start shipping 400 million free non-surgical N95 face masks to distribution sites nationwide this week as part of efforts to fight the surging omicron COVID-19 variant, according to a White House official.
The masks — which are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile — will be made available at a number of local pharmacies and community health centers, the official said, adding that the program will be “fully up and running by early February.”
“This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history,” the official said.
Americans will be able to pick up their masks at one of “tens of thousands” of pharmacies, thousands of community centers and other locations across the country, beginning late next week, the official said.
The 400 million non-surgical N95 masks amount to more than half of the 750 million stored in the US’ Strategic National Stockpile, a figure that tripled over the last year as the White House sought to boost reserves.
The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health — such as N95 masks — offer “the highest level of protection” against Covid-19.
The administration’s step comes as the US grapples with an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases. An average of more than 750,000 new Covid-19 infections were reported every day over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it,” Biden said last week in remarks on his administration’s coronavirus response. “But there is a — they’re a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of the highly transmittable Omicron variant. So, please, please wear the mask.”
Earlier this month, the CDC changed its mask guidelines to recommend that people “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”
The distribution will start just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its coronavirus guidance to urge the use N95s or KN95s over “loosely woven cloth” masks, which the agency said provided the least protection.
“Please, please wear the mask,” Biden said. “As I’ve said in the last two years, please wear a mask. I think it’s part of your patriotic duty. It’s not that comfortable. It’s a pain in the neck.”
Beyond masks, the federal government has also launched its website to sign up for free Covid-19 tests, allowing people to order a maximum of four tests shipped directly to their household.
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