Plan to distribute free N95 masks praised, but some want more done

Masks to be available through drugstores and community health centers

A masked President Joe Biden talks to reporters after meeting with Senate Democrats last week. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A masked President Joe Biden talks to reporters after meeting with Senate Democrats last week. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted January 19, 2022 at 12:39pm

The White House is making 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks in a national stockpile available for free to Americans after months of supply shortages and cost concerns from consumers, although one high-profile lawmaker said the administration should do more.

High-filtration masks, such as N95s, provide greater protection against the omicron COVID-19 variant. But throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, N95s have been more expensive than cloth or surgical masks, and sometimes difficult to find.

“Not all masks are created equal. N95s are far more effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted Wednesday morning. "I applaud the Biden Administration for making 400 million N95 masks available for free around the country. It is a good first step, and more must be done."

Last week, Sanders introduced legislation with over 50 other Democrats from both chambers to require the federal government to send three N95 masks to every person in the United States.

Under President Joe Biden's plan, the free masks will be available at tens of thousands of locations nationwide, according to a White House official.

The Biden administration’s program will be fully up and running by early February, and masks will start to become available at pharmacies and community health centers late next week. It is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in United States history, said White House officials.

The administration will use the existing federal retail pharmacy program for COVID-19 vaccines and the federal community health center program for distribution so people can walk into local pharmacies or health centers and grab masks, along with booster shots or initial vaccinations.

Biden acknowledged shortcomings in his approach to testing during a press conference Thursday, but sought to assure the public that the administration has put the necessary tools in place to combat the virus going forward.

“Should we have done more testing earlier?” he said. “Yes, but we’re doing more now.”

The federal site for households to order COVID-19 tests opened with some challenges Wednesday after a soft launch Tuesday. Reports of problems relating to perceived duplicate orders blocked some people in multiunit buildings from ordering tests.

A larger issue might be the time it takes for the tests to be manufactured and delivered. The administration estimated it would take seven to 12 days for the tests to ship after an order is placed.

The omicron variant is still driving a surge cases in the U.S., and some experts warn that a peak in the wave could be weeks away. Biden promised to continue federal efforts to combat the virus while keeping the economy and schools open.

“I'm not going to give up and accept things as they are,” Biden said. “Some people may call what's happening now the new normal. I call it a job not yet finished.”

Reaction

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., praised the Biden administration’s new mask distribution program.

“Masking, along with getting vaccinated, is one of the best tools we have to combat COVID-19 & save lives,” Cleaver tweeted Wednesday. “As these top-of-the-line masks are made available, please do your patriotic duty and #MaskUp.”

Project N95, a national nonprofit that’s worked with the Biden administration throughout the pandemic, welcomed the plan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has plenty of applications from manufacturers looking to supply Americans with more N95s.

“Despite temporary supply chain issues affecting some makers, there is now no shortage of these masks, thanks to a robust domestic manufacturing sector. Access to them has not been universal, however, due to cost and lack of awareness,” Project N95 Executive Director Anne Miller said.

Capitol Hill Democrats have been pushing to make higher-quality masks available for free.

“We can save tens of thousands of lives by simply making the equipment people need free and easily accessible. If we’re asking folks to wear a mask, it’s on us to provide one,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said last week when Sanders introduced his bill.

Many public health officials have recently recommended Americans wear high-quality masks, such as N95s, to prevent exposure to COVID-19 during the omicron surge. The CDC was criticized as being slow to clearly recommend N95s over less effective options such as cloth masks.

On Jan. 14, the public health agency updated its guidelines encouraging Americans to wear the most protective mask they can tolerate, but said any well-fitting mask is better than no mask at all. The agency said that some types of masks and respirators, such as N95s and KN95s, provide more protection to the wearer than cloth masks.

For most of the pandemic, the CDC did not recommend Americans wear N95s or KN95s, because of concerns that high-quality masks should be reserved for health care workers. But now the U.S. has an ample supply of those high-filtration masks in storage.

Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and other Democratic senators urged Biden to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile with American-made products. They wrote that doing so would "ensure that the United States maintains a robust PPE manufacturing capacity so that we are never again in a situation where we must be dependent on foreign-made products, like we were in the early days of the pandemic."

At the same time, they wrote to the Architect of the Capitol expressing disappointment with the recent distribution of Chinese-made KN95s at the Capitol. The quality of KN95s are not independently verified by U.S. regulators, and an estimated 60 percent are counterfeit.

Emily Kopp contributed to this story.