HealthDay News — The Biden administration plans to announce Wednesday that it will send 400 million free nonsurgical N95 masks to community health centers and pharmacies across the country so more Americans can get the masks that are most protective against COVID-19.
The move follows updated mask guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last week that acknowledged cloth masks do not offer as much protection as surgical masks or respirators. N95 respirator masks were in short supply during the early days of the pandemic. According to the CDC’s new mask guidance, well-fitting respirators, including N95s, offer the highest level of protection.
The White House said in a statement on Wednesday that the government would begin shipping the N95 masks at the end of this week, and they were expected to be available at the end of next week, The New York Times reported, with the program in full gear by early February.
The masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency reserve, which was badly depleted at the start of the pandemic. As late as December 2020, the United States was still facing alarming shortages of personal protective gear.
At a Senate hearing last week, Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the stockpile now had 737 million N95 masks. The government is also soliciting proposals from companies that have the ability to surge production to 141 million N95 masks per month in a crisis, so that the nation would never again be without masks in a public health emergency, O’Connell said during the hearing, The Times reported. The idea, she said, is for the stockpile to “keep this capacity that we currently have going, even when demand diminishes.”