As the omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to infect across the country, the Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will begin to distribute 400 million free N95 masks to Americans next week.
The White House said that the masks will come from the government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million available.
Three will be available per individual – although details were not immediately available on what sort of masks will be provided and whether they could be worn again.
The masks will be available at tens of thousands of locations nationwide, including pharmacies and community health centers that have partnered with the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
A White House official said that this act marks the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.
They said the administration would start to ship masks at the end of the week.
Earlier this month, a senior administration official told Politico – which first reported this initiative – that an effort to send the respirators to Americans would make little difference because “half the country won’t wear any mask.”
“It may be popular in certain corners of Twitter, but for masking to work as a public health tool, people need to actually wear them,” the official reportedly said then. “To prevent spread, the focus should be maximizing the number of people simply wearing a mask in the first place, not shifting the goal posts to urge everyone to go above and beyond to use high filtration masks to make it less likely they themselves will inhale particles.”
However, that statement was made before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated guidance on face coverings, clarifying that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the most protection against COVID-19
“Some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others and some may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently than others,” the agency wrote. “It is most important to wear a well-fitting mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.”
Still, it didn’t formally recommend N95s over cloth masks.
“Our main message continues to be that any mask is better than no mask,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement.
N95s or KN95 masks are more widely available now than at any other time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, they are often more expensive than surgical or cloth masks.
The White House has faced criticism over its response to the omicron variant of the coronavirus, including its testing efforts.
On Wednesday, the federal government and the U.S Postal Service launched a website for Americans to order four free rapid COVID-19 tests to their residences.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.