White House to Ship 400 Million N95 Masks to Retail Pharmacies, Health Centers This Week

The Biden administration announced that it would make 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks for US citizens available free of charge at community health centers and retail pharmacies across the United States.

According to a White House statement, the Biden administration will start to deliver N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers across the country by the end of the week to begin a new program seeking to provide the highest efficacy personal protective equipment (PPE) to US citizens. According to the statement, the masks are expected to be available for US citizens to pick up free of charge from pharmacies and health centers at the end of next week, with the government’s program of PPE distribution set to be in full swing by early February.1

The announcement follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s update to its mask guidance released on January 14, which explained that cloth masks are not as effective against the spread of the omicron variant as respirators, such as N95s and KN95s. However, the CDC noted in the update that surgical N95s should remain reserved for health care settings.1,2

In a White House press briefing on January 12, 2022, health officials explained to reporters that over the past several weeks, there has been a substantial increase in the number of daily COVID-19 cases in the country. The magnitude of this increase is largely due to the Omicron variant, which now makes up 98% of the total COVID-19 cases in the country.3

“The current 7-day daily average of cases is about 751,000 cases per day, an increase of about 47% over the previous week. The 7-day average of hospital admissions is about 19,800 per day, an increase of about 33% over the prior week. And the 7-day average of daily deaths are about 1600 per day, which is an increase of about 40% over the previous week,” said Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, the director of the CDC and the administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, during the press briefing.3

However, even with these increases, Walensky noted that a study from Kaiser Permanente Southern California showed that with the omicron variant, there is a 74% reduction in risk of ICU admission and a 91% reduction in risk of mortality. Additionally, the data showed that no patients with omicron required mechanical ventilation.3

Walensky explained that the data from the Kaiser Permanente Southern California study remain consistent with the omicron variant’s characteristics as observed in other countries, such as South Africa and the UK.1,3 However, even with the lower risk of mortality and ICU admission, omicron continues to be more transmissible than the delta variant, which is why the increase in cases has resulted in an increased strain on the US health care system.3

“The risk of hospitalization remains low, especially among people who are up to date on their COVID vaccines,” Walensky said during the press briefing. “However, the staggering rise in cases—over 1 million new cases each day—has led to a high number of total hospitalizations.”3

With this strain on hospitals and health systems and the ongoing staffing challenges facing the US health care system, Walensky noted the importance of acting to protect US hospitals and citizens by reducing the further spread of this virus.3

“As you’ve heard me say before, we know what works against COVID-19,” Walensky said during the briefing. “This means getting vaccinated and getting boosted; wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of high transmission—and, currently, that’s over 99% of our counties; and testing before you gather with others.”3

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients noted during the press briefing that the US government’s Strategic National Stockpile contains more than 750 million N95 masks for health care workers and first responders, but they had begun to also consider the potential use of these masks for US citizens as well.3

“Right now, we are strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans, and we’ll continue to follow the science here,” Zients said during the press briefing. “The CDC is in the lead, but this is an act—this is an area that we’re actively exploring.”3

Several days after this briefing and the CDC’s updated guidance on mask efficacy, the Biden administration made the announcement that it would make available 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks for US citizens, free of charge, by shipping them to community health centers and retail pharmacies across the United States. This would be the “largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history,” according to White House officials.1

These masks would be pulled from the Strategic National Stockpile, with the government also soliciting proposals from companies that have the capacity to increase their production of N95 masks to 141 million per month. White House officials noted that under this government contract, these manufacturing companies would then continue to maintain their production of N95 masks following the current surge at a lower rate when demand would be lower, so that the country would remain prepared for future health crises.1,3

REFERENCES

  1. Stolberg SG. The Biden administration will give away masks in the ‘largest deployment’ of such equipment in U.S. history. New York Times. January 19, 2022. Accessed January 19, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/19/us/covid-biden-free-masks.html
  2. CDC. Types of Masks and Respirators. CDC website. Updated January 14, 2022. Accessed January 19, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/types-of-masks.html
  3. The White House. Press Briefing by White House COVID-⁠19 Response Team and Public Health Officials. The White House website. January 12, 2022. Accessed January 19, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/01/12/press-briefing-by-white-house-covid-19-response-team-and-public-health-officials-78/