Biden says free high-quality masks coming soon for all in US

Move comes as Bernie Sanders introduces bill in Senate to send masks 'to every American'

Elementary school teacher Carrie Landheer protests for stronger Covid-19 safety protocols in Oakland, California. AP
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US President Joe Biden said on Thursday he will give details about his administration's plans to distribute free N95 masks next week, following calls for increased access to masks due to the surge in cases caused by the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

“For some Americans, the [high-quality] mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” Mr Biden said.

“So, next week, we'll announce how we're making a high-quality mask available for … the American people for free.”

Politico reported on Thursday that several officials in President Joe Biden's administration, including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, were discussing the possibility of giving N95 or KN95 masks to all who want them.

“We're strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans,” White House Covid Response Team Co-ordinator Jeff Zients said in Wednesday's briefing.

Bernie Sanders and other US senators on Wednesday moved to improve access to high-filtration face masks to combat the Omicron variant, which has spread like wildfire across the country.

The US is recording historic numbers of coronavirus cases — leading to a record level of hospital admissions in a strapped healthcare system.

The country has registered a seven-day average of 760,000 infections, but doctors say higher-filtration masks would help curb infections.

The Omicron variant now accounts for 98 per cent of US cases, estimates by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show.

“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks — I get it,” Mr Biden said. “But they're a really important tool to stop the spread especially the highly transmissible Omicron variant.”

Doctors and public health experts have been advocating better masking practices and for the US government to help.

“The US should make masks available via multiple avenues — sending them to people's homes, free at post offices and grocery stores, as well as outside of public transit,” Dr Abraar Karan, an infectious diseases doctor at Stanford University, told The National.

When the pandemic first hit the US, higher-quality masks were prioritised for essential and healthcare workers amid frenzied demand for N95s. Mr Biden said his administration “more than tripled” the federal stockpile of N95 masks for healthcare workers.

A culture of cloth masks — or not wearing masks at all — has been hard to shake, but an upgrade is now seen as essential.

“We should have had high-filtration masks from the start — all variants transmit by aerosols, so that has not changed. However, with increased transmissibility, the benefit of high-filtration masks is even greater,” Dr Karan said.

The CDC will be updating mask guidance on their website to better inform Americans on masking and quality, the agency's Director Dr Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday.

“Better access and availability would be critical,” said Dr Karan, who has been advocating for people to wear better masks.

“Imagine an increase in filtration of 20-30 per cent over double masking and 40-60 per cent over single masking with cloth, multiply that across an entire city, county or state, and you will slow down spread.”

Connecticut is distributing six million N95 masks to residents this January. Cities such as Milwaukee and Salt Lake City are also giving out free N95 masks.

The push follows requests for wider access to rapid at-home testing, with pressure leading to the Biden administration's announcement that 500 million free tests would be sent to homes upon request via a website set to launch this month.

But the drive for N95s for all faces challenges in both acceptance and interest as mask mandates become a heated political and cultural topic in the country, despite the public health benefits.

Updated: June 21, 2023, 9:05 AM