WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will make 400 million N95 masks available for free at thousands of locations across the country, a White House official said Wednesday, as health experts stress the importance of high-quality face coverings to protect against the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The plan consists of working with pharmacies and community health centers to distribute the nonsurgical masks, which will come from the Strategic National Stockpile. The administration will begin shipments this week and hopes to have the program fully operational by early February, the White House official said.
Dr. Tom Inglesby, the administration’s Covid testing coordinator, said in an interview, “We know that these masks provide better protection than cloth masks.”
The N95 masks will be made available to everybody, and recipients will not be prioritized based on vulnerability to Covid, income or other criteria. Inglesby said the administration was “confident that people who want to access them will be able to access them,” but it was not immediately clear how many masks a person could receive at one time.
The White House website to order free at-home Covid tests went live Tuesday. The website says: “Every home in the U.S. is eligible to order 4 free at-home COVID-19 tests. The tests are completely free. Orders will usually ship in 7-12 days.”
Inglesby said the new approach to providing masks and tests is part of a longer-term strategy to bolster supplies well beyond the omicron variant, as public health officials acknowledge that the virus may require prevention, mitigation and treatment in addition to vaccines.
Some public health experts have criticized President Joe Biden for not doing more to encourage people to wear N95 or KN95 masks rather than less protective cloth masks as Covid hospitalization numbers have spiked because of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Administration officials have been divided over how strongly to encourage people to wear high-filtration masks, such as N95 respirators. Some have been calling for more widespread distribution of the N95 variety, while others have expressed concern that discouraging cloth masks could lead people to stop wearing masks altogether if they do not like the fit of the N95.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on masks for the general public Friday, saying people “may choose” to wear N95 and KN95 masks because they offer the best protection against Covid. But the agency stopped short of recommending that people seek out certain masks over others.
Higher-quality masks increase the time it could take for Covid to spread between people.
During the early days of the pandemic, people in the U.S. were urged to leave N95 masks and the KN95 versions made in China for health care workers. But since then, the U.S. has bolstered its manufacturing capacity, and the country now has a stockpile of 750 million N95 masks as part of the Strategic National Stockpile for health care workers.
The White House official said Wednesday that the distribution of 400 million masks would be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.
Some members of Congress have pressured Biden to more aggressively address the financial cost of Covid tests and masks to shift the burden away from U.S. households. The N95 masks can sell for as little as $1 and be reused several times, but they can add up to be more expensive than reusable cloth masks over time.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other Democrats last week to push for a bill that would provide three N95 masks to every person living in the U.S., while a group of medical experts who advised Biden during the transition publicly encouraged the White House last week to give people vouchers to buy masks from retailers.
Inglesby said that the administration was “absolutely preparing for the possibility of additional variants in the future” and that people could expect the government to make N95 masks “more and more available.”
Lauren Egan is a White House reporter for NBC News based in Washington.
Heidi Przybyla is an NBC News correspondent.