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US President Joe Biden's administration announced Wednesday it will distribute about 400 million high-quality N95 masks free of charge to Americans as part of its effort to rein in the coronavirus pandemic.
The masks will be made available beginning next week at distribution points nationwide, particularly pharmacies and community health centres that have partnered with the federal government’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign, and will kick into full gear in February, the White House said.
“This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history,” an unnamed White House official said in a statement.
In early 2020, then-president Donald Trump’s administration considered and then shelved plans to send masks to all homes in the country. Mr Biden embraced the initiative after facing mounting criticism this month over the inaccessibility — both in supply and cost — of N95 masks as the highly transmissible Omicron variant swept across the country.
After facing similar criticism over a winter shortage of Covid-19 at-home test kits, Mr Biden this week launched a website so people living in the US can order four rapid tests that will be shipped to their homes free of charge, with the first tests to ship later this month.
Mr Biden said he intends to deliver one billion at-home test kits, doubling a pledge he made in December.
The US Centres for Disease Control on Friday updated its guidance on face coverings to more clearly state that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the most protection against Covid-19. Still, it did not formally recommend N95s versus cloth masks.
The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings”, said CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky.
Details were not immediately available on the specifics of the programme, including the sort of masks to be provided, whether child-sized ones will be available and whether the masks are reusable.
N95 or KN95 masks are more widely available now than at any other time during the pandemic, though they are often more costly than less-protective surgical masks or cloth masks.
Agencies contributed to this report