WASHINGTON — The Biden administration plans to distribute 400 million high-quality masks available to Americans for free starting next week in the hopes of offering better protection against the omicron variant of the coronavirus, the White House announced Wednesday.
The White House said N95 masks will be available for pickup at pharmacies and community health centers across the country by late next week. The administration will begin shipping masks at the end of this week, and the program "will be fully up and running by early February," the White House said in a statement.
It is not clear whether personnel at pharmacies and community health centers will help ensure such masks are properly fitted. The White House did not disclose whether masks will be offered in various sizes.
This will be the largest allocation of free masks by the federal government since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Masks will come from the government's Strategic National Stockpile, which contains more than 750 million such respirators.
Public health experts have repeatedly warned that cloth masks do not provide enough protection against the highly contagious omicron variant, and they recommend people wear high-grade N95 or KN95 respirators. The move comes as many Americans are struggling to find such masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday upgraded its mask guidance, emphasizing that N95 or KN95 masks offer far more protection than cloth face coverings.
The agency has not formally recommended that Americans ditch cloth masks in favor of N95s.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky last week stressed that the best mask is one that fits well. The proper 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," she said.