Free N95 Masks to Be Made Available at Pharmacies, White House Says

WASHINGTON—The Biden administration on Wednesday announced plans to make 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers across the country.

The move comes as President Biden has stepped up the federal government’s response to a nationwide surge in Covid-19 cases triggered by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Some scientists and doctors have said popular single-layer cloth masks may not be sufficient to protect against Omicron and called on the administration to expand access to high-filtration masks such as N95s.

The nonsurgical N95 masks will start to be available at pharmacies and community health centers late next week and the program will be fully up and running by early February, the White House official said. The masks will be sourced from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s safety net of medical-equipment supplies.

“This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history,” the official said. “Experts agree that masking is an important tool to control the spread of Covid-19.”

Three masks will be available per person, the official said, to ensure broad access. Most of the pharmacies that are part of the federal pharmacy vaccine program will distribute the masks, the official said.

Mr. Biden has also sought to expand access to Covid-19 tests amid nationwide shortages in supply. On Tuesday, the administration began taking orders through a new website—for at-home rapid tests that will be distributed to Americans free. Another one of Mr. Biden’s plans, under which private insurers will cover the cost of over-the-counter Covid-19 tests, took effect this month.

To help combat Omicron, the Biden administration is opening up more Covid testing sites and delivering 500 million Covid tests to Americans. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down why testing is still a pain point in the U.S., two years into the pandemic. Photo Illustration: David Fang

Amid criticism from some public-health experts that it didn’t sufficiently prepare for the Omicron wave, the administration is also taking steps to speed up availability and access to Covid-19 antivirals, with hospitalizations on the rise and treatments in short supply. The federal government has now purchased 20 million treatment courses of

Pfizer Inc.’s

Covid-19 antiviral pill Paxlovid and expects to have at least half of them by June.

Mr. Biden has urged the public to wear masks in public indoor spaces but stopped short of calling on state and local officials to bring back mask mandates amid the Omicron wave. In December, the president extended a mask mandate for travelers on planes, buses and trains, and at domestic transportation hubs such as airports and indoor bus terminals, as the variant began to take hold in the U.S.

Last week, Mr. Biden acknowledged that high-quality masks weren’t easy to find. “I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” he said. “I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it. But…they’re a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable Omicron variant.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear “the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.” The public-health agency advises that well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, including N95s, offer the most protection against Covid-19.

N95 masks have a denser network of fibers than surgical or cloth masks. That tighter mesh, together with an electrostatic charge in the material, generally makes such masks the most efficient at trapping larger droplets and aerosols that are exhaled by the wearer. They also better block such particles from being inhaled.

Before this past three-day holiday weekend began and disrupted some data reporting, the U.S. seven-day average for newly reported Covid-19 cases had reached record highs of about 800,000 a day, Johns Hopkins University data show.

Write to Sabrina Siddiqui at [email protected]

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