The Biden administration responded to calls from public-health experts to distribute high-quality N95 masks to the American population. It announced on Wednesday that it will make 400 million nonsurgical N95 facial masks free of cost at community health centers across the country and in retail pharmacies.
The move, which officials are calling the “largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history,” comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance to acknowledge that cloth masks do not offer as much protection as surgical masks or respirators.
N95 respirators, named for their ability to filter out 95 percent all airborne particles if used correctly, were scarce in the early days of the pandemic. According to the C.D.C.’s new description of masks, well-fitting respirators, including N95s, offer the highest level of protection.
Wednesday was also the formal launch day for covidtests.gov, the administration’s new website enabling Americans to order at-home coronavirus tests free of charge. The site was quietly launched on Tuesday.
The administration has been heavily criticised for not moving faster to distribute both masks and tests to the public, particularly since the Omicron variant fuels an enormous spike in cases. Some public health experts suggest that N95 masks be sent to every household by the federal government.
Jeff Zients, President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters last week that the administration was “actively exploring” ways to make high-quality masks available.
In a statement, the White House stated Wednesday that N95 masks would be shipped to pharmacies and other health centers by the end this week. The masks are expected to be available by the end next week. According to the statement, the program would be fully operational by February 1.
The masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency reserve, which was badly depleted at the outset of the pandemic, leaving health care workers without masks and other personal protective gear essential to fighting the novel virus.
The New York Times published a March investigation that found that the stockpile was heavily geared toward protecting against bioterror attack. In fact, over half of its budget was spent for the anthrax vaccine.
China made half the world’s masks before the coronavirus emerged there, and the country was hoarding them, leaving U.S. hospitals — and the rest of the world — scrambling for supplies. The United States still faced alarming shortages in personal protective gear as of December 2020.
These deficiencies were promised by the Biden administration. At a Senate hearing last week, Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the stockpile now had 737 million N95 masks, all from domestic manufacturers.
The government is also soliciting proposals from companies that have the ability to surge production to 141 million N95 masks per month in a crisis, and that would be able to maintain manufacturing at a much lower rate when demand is lower, so that the nation would never again be caught short in a public health emergency, Ms. O’Connell said.
The idea, she said, is for the stockpile to “keep this capacity that we currently have going even when demand diminishes.”
Source: NY Times