The Biden administration is planning to give out 400 million free N95 masks to Americans in the coming weeks, supplied from the country's strategic stockpile as the nation is facing a record surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the Omicron variant.
The free masks will be made available to the public at thousands of local pharmacies and community health centers nationwide starting late next week, according to a White House official, and will mark "the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history."
It comes as the administration also began a program to distribute free at-home COVID tests to Americans who request them on the website COVIDtests.gov. Details of the N95 mask supply program were first reported by Politico.
"I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get," President Biden said last week.
The president is expected to announce the new details in remarks on Wednesday. He's scheduled to hold a news conference at the White House at 4 p.m. ET. The initiative is a step up from the several million reusable cloth masks that were supplied for free by his administration last year through places like health centers and food banks.
"I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it. But there is — they're a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable Omicron variant," Mr. Biden said.
The president's move comes a week after the CDC revised its guidance around wearing masks to make it clear that certain types of masks "offer higher levels of protection than others." Well-fitting N95 respirators filter 95% of airborne particles, and KN95 masks offer a similar level of protection.
Early in the pandemic, supplies were scarce and the CDC urged Americans to reserve N95 masks for health care workers, but there is no longer a shortage.
Some health experts have been urging people for months to step up their masks to these more protective options, which officials now say are "widely available" across the country.
However, they also acknowledge N95 respirators could be uncomfortable for some to wear — and that many Americans forgo wearing even basic masks altogether.
Survey results released last week by The COVID States Project found only around 56% of Americans said they were "very closely" following mask use recommendations, and just 1 in 5 Americans were wearing higher-quality N95 or KN95 type masks.
Regardless of vaccination status, the CDC says all Americans should wear a mask indoors or in crowded outdoor settings in communities with "high numbers of COVID-19 cases." Nearly every U.S. county is currently listed in the red zone of "high" transmission, amid the record surge in Omicron cases.
"CDC continues to recommend that any mask is better than no mask. And we do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that recommendation is not going to change," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters last week.
Shipments of the free masks will come out of the country's Strategic National Stockpile, which federal officials have cited as a key part of their efforts to shore up domestic mask makers.
The Biden administration has credited those investments with helping increase manufacturing of N95 masks. A group of mask manufacturers had claimed last year that Chinese firms were dumping masks in the U.S. market at prices that threatened domestic suppliers.
At the end of last month, the stockpile's inventory of N95 respirators was 59 times larger than pre-pandemic levels.
"We continue to support the manufacture of N95 masks. We have 737 million in the Strategic National Stockpile, all sourced from 12 domestic manufacturers," Dawn O'Connell, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, told a Senate hearing last week.