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White House emphasizes testing over mask update

Experts have been calling for the CDC to update its mask guidance to recommend high-filtration coverings

A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 appears on a bus outside the Capitol on Monday.
A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 appears on a bus outside the Capitol on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The White House COVID-19 Response Team stopped short of announcing major changes to anticipated guidance surrounding masks and instead focused on changes to testing strategy on Wednesday.

Experts have been calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its mask guidance to recommend high-filtration masks such as N95s and KN95s in light of the surge of the omicron variant. 

“Right now, we are strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans, and we’ll continue to follow the science here. The CDC is in the lead. But this is an area that we’re actively exploring,” said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients.

Zients said the federal government has “a strong stockpile” of more than 750 million masks for health care workers and first-responders and does not have concerns about the supply of N95 and other high-filtration masks.

He added that the administration was not currently seeking more funding for masks.

“In terms of money, we have the money that we need to fight omicron,” he said. “If we do need more money, more funding, at some point we will request that money.”

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also echoed that an update to the CDC’s mask guidance was coming to “best reflect the options that are available to people, as you note, and the different levels of protection different masks provide.”

But she also doubled down on refusing to endorse a certain type of mask, instead repeating that the “best” masks are those that individuals will wear continuously in indoor settings.

“We are updating information on our mask website to provide information to the public,” she said. “We will provide information on improved filtration that occurs with other masks, such as N95s, and information that the public needs about how to make a choice of which mask is the right one for them. But most importantly, we want to highlight the best mask for you is the one that you can wear comfortably.”

But some experts are also wary of changes to recommendations on which masks should be worn without additional changes.

Project N95, a nonprofit focused on improving access to high-filtration masks, issued a statement Wednesday saying the group urges the federal government to also take action to crack down on counterfeit masks sold online and improve affordability of these masks.

“We support the CDC’s focus on a better-quality mask recommendation. The concern we have is that it may drive those who aren’t informed or don’t have means to substandard (KN95) masks that may not be protective. A KN95 is not certified by any government body and the CDC has reported that more than 60 percent of KN95s it tested were fake, counterfeit or substandard,” said Project N95 Executive Director Anne Miller.

Testing plans

The White House also announced plans to increase testing options for schools but stopped short of outlining details, including what types of schools would be eligible for the expanded testing.

The government will provide 5 million rapid tests and 5 million lab-based tests to schools per month.

“These 10 million additional tests available each month will allow schools to double the volume of testing they were performing in November,” said Zients, who added that these tests will leverage existing contracting authorities at the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC.

Zients also announced that Tom Inglesby has been named to lead the federal testing program. Inglesby has been working on the COVID-19 testing response for the White House since December.

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