To help combat the widespread omicron variant, the Biden administration will make 400 million non-surgical N95 masks available to Americans for free "at tens of thousands of convenient locations nationwide," according to a White House official.
The highly protective masks will be sourced from the country’s Strategic National Stockpile and are expected to become available at pharmacies and community health centers by late next week. The Biden administration will begin shipping masks at the end of this week.
The Biden administration is utilizing the federal retail pharmacy program and the federal community health center program to distribute the masks, so they will be available at places where Americans can also get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19. The program is expected to be fully up and running by early February.
A White House official called it the "largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history."
Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden’s administration used the Defense Production Act to accelerate production of both masks and COVID vaccines. Since Jan. 2021, the U.S. tripled the number of N95 masks in the stockpile, amounting to more than 750 million N95 masks.
"Today, there is ample supply of high-quality masks for health care workers, and high-quality masks are also widely available to the American public online and in stores," the White House said.
In revised guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that masks with “properly fitted respirators” — like N95 and KN95 masks — provide the highest level of protection.
“A respirator has better filtration, and if worn properly the whole time it is in use, can provide a higher level of protection than a cloth or procedural mask,” read CDC guidance. “A mask or respirator will be less effective if it fits poorly or if you wear it improperly or take it off frequently.”
Biden announced the plan to make N95 masks available at no cost in a speech earlier this month, where he acknowledged frustrations about the ongoing pandemic as COVID-19 stretches into its third year.
“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks,” Biden said last week. “I get it. But they're a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable omicron variant.”