(CNN) — The Biden administration will make 400 million N95 masks available to Americans for free starting next week, a White House official told CNN, the latest federal step aimed at reining in the US’ Covid-19 surge.
The masks — which are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile — will be made available at a number of local pharmacies and community health centers, the official said, adding that the program will be “fully up and running by early February.”
“This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history,” the official said.
The 400 million non-surgical N95 masks amount to more than half of the 750 million stored in the US’ Strategic National Stockpile, a figure that tripled over the last year as the White House sought to boost reserves. The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health — such as N95 masks — offer “the highest level of protection” against Covid-19.
The administration’s step comes as the US grapples with an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases. An average of more than 750,000 new Covid-19 infections were reported every day over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it,” Biden said last week in remarks on his administration’s coronavirus response. “But there is a — they’re a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of the highly transmittable Omicron variant. So, please, please wear the mask.”
Earlier this month, the CDC changed its mask guidelines to recommend that people “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, recently said on “CNN Newsroom.”
Beyond masks, the federal government has also quietly launched its website to sign up for free Covid-19 tests, allowing people to order a maximum of four tests shipped directly to their household.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed Tuesday that the government website to order free tests was up and running as part of a “beta phase” ahead of the government website’s formal rollout Wednesday morning.