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White House to distribute 400 million free N95 masks starting next week

Adults will be able to get up to three masks each; additional high-quality masks for children ‘in the near future,’ administration official says

President Biden’s administration is providing N95 masks free of charge. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

The Biden administration plans to distribute 400 million high-quality N95 masks for adults free of charge at thousands of pharmacies and other locations starting next week, a White House official said.

With the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus spurring record levels of infections and hospitalizations, public health experts have repeatedly said masking, especially with superior-quality products, is an important tool to control spread of the airborne virus.

The distribution of the masks is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history, said the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement. The N95 masks will come from the government’s Strategic National Stockpile and will be given out at tens of thousands of pharmacies and federal community health centers, the same locations where many Americans have received their vaccinations.

U.S. officials are starting to ship masks at the end of this week. The masks will be available at pharmacies and community health centers late next week. The program will be fully up and running by early February. There will be three masks available per adult. Also, “we anticipate making additional, high-quality masks for children available in the near future,” the official said.

Officials did not address questions on how they would prevent someone from visiting pharmacies frequently and getting masks at each visit.

N95 and KN95s are known as respirators that filter out most virus particles — and come with markings to indicate they are authentic. Both types of masks must form a seal to the face to work properly.

The announcement comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided its most explicit guidance to date Friday on the protection offered by masks. Well-fitting respirators, such as the N95 products that are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “offer the highest level of protection” in reducing the spread of the virus, compared with cloth coverings and other masks.

The United States has more than 750 million N95 masks in the stockpile. Unlike earlier in the pandemic when severe shortages of personal protective equipment affected hospitals, forcing hospital staff to make homemade face shields and use bandannas, an ample supply of high-quality masks exists for health-care workers, officials said. Those masks are also widely available to the public online and in stores.

Pharmacies and community health centers will be given a variety of domestically produced models of government-approved N95 respirators. Special surgical N95 masks are reserved for health-care workers and will not be given out, an official at the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday. HHS maintains supplies in the stockpile.

Signs will be displayed prominently at locations to instruct consumers on how to use the masks, the HHS official said.

President Biden announced last week that the administration would make high-quality masks available free to all Americans.

Outside experts, including former CDC director Tom Frieden, for some time have urged the use of N95 masks, noting that wearing such masks is particularly important for people who are older or immunocompromised, especially if those around them are not masked.

Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at Boston University researching health policy, said every Group of Seven country has a mask mandate or widespread mask-wearing except the United States.

“After surges in July, November, and December, we should expect to see more surges and know that new variants could evade vaccines,” Raifman said in an email. “We should prepare to have enough N95 and KN95 masks and tests for everyone in future surges. We should implement data-driven mask policies so that mask policies automatically turn on and better protect everyone and our society during surges.”

Coronavirus cases spiked globally in the first weeks of 2022, despite record-high vaccination rates. Here’s how the omicron variant took off. (Video: Jackie Lay, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

While N95 respirators offer the strongest protection, some experts said the masks can be difficult to breathe through and come in different sizes.

“For most of us, we really feel a well-fitting mask is the key point,” said Ann Marie Pettis, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. Double-masking, or using a mask fitter or brace over a mask, can often provide a snugger seal, she said.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a University of Pennsylvania bioethics specialist who advised Biden’s transition team on the coronavirus, has argued that masks offer additional protection while normalizing the use of face coverings.

In an interview Tuesday, Emanuel stressed that high-quality masks such as N95s were essential to ward off the fast-moving omicron variant.

“[Having] everyone wearing N95 masks is the single biggest thing we could do to reduce transmission,” Emanuel said. “It reduces what’s going out, and it blocks what’s coming in.”

Emanuel requires his students to wear N95 masks in class, handing out fresh masks every month and paying for them out of his research budget.

In articles this month, Emanuel and other former Biden advisers called on the administration to make high-quality face coverings “readily available to all US residents for free or very low cost.”

After the articles’ publication, Biden officials last week met with Emanuel to discuss his recommendations.

“This is a big step forward,” Emanuel said, hailing the Biden administration’s announcement. “It’s taken two years, but it appears we’re getting it right, finally.”

Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, a nonprofit organization that distributes free N95s and children’s masks in the United States, said in a statement that the group supported the White House decision, calling it “an unprecedented move to help protect the American public.” Although there is now no shortage of the masks, she said, access to them has not been universal because of cost and lack of awareness.

The CDC says “loosely woven cloth coverings” offer the least protection. Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95 masks offer more protection. Well-fitting respirators, including N95 masks, offer the highest level.

N95 respirators are designed to filter at least 95 percent of particles, as their name implies. KN95s are supposed to meet a comparable Chinese standard, but there is no Chinese regulatory agency ensuring that, Miller has said. But some U.S. firms make high-quality KN95s, she has said.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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