WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES— The U.S. government will make 400 million non-surgical “N95” masks from its strategic national stockpile available for free to the public starting next week, a White House official said, as the Biden administration tries to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
Snug-fitting N95 face masks, so-called because they filter at least 95% of particulate matter from the air, will be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers this week, the official said, and will be available for pickup late next week.
The U.S. government is leveraging the “federal retail pharmacy program” it used for vaccines, the White House said, as well as federally funded health clinics that serve minority groups hit hard by COVID infections and deaths.
Retail chain CVS, which has nearly 10,000 U.S. pharmacy locations including within Target stores, and Walgreens, which has over 9,000 stores, plan to distribute free masks, company spokespeople said.
The move comes after President Joe Biden and his team faced criticism for not doing enough to foster masking or bolster testing as the Omicron variant rages across the country, and hospitalizations hit a new record.
The administration also made free rapid home tests available via a website that launched officially on Wednesday.
“This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history,” the official said about the masks, which retail for roughly $1 to $2 online.
Multilayered masks like the N95 that form a seal around the nose and mouth are considered especially effective at preventing virus spread. Last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that Americans wear the “the most protective mask” they can.
Consumer demand for N95s and other more protective masks has spiked in recent weeks on Amazon.com and other online sites.
Hospitals have recovered from the desperate N95 shortages of the early pandemic of 2020, but several executives told Reuters that healthcare supply chains remain fragile.
On Dec. 29, there were 747 million N95s in the U.S. government’s Strategic National Stockpile, 59 times pre-pandemic levels, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
U.S. mask makers told Reuters they have the machines to make millions of N95s each month, and that they prioritize healthcare workers.
3M, the largest manufacturer of N95 respirators in the United States, has the capacity to make more than 2 billion of those masks a year at factories in South Dakota, Nebraska and elsewhere in the world, spokesperson Jennifer Ehrlich said.
3M has “already supplied the federal and state governments with hundreds of millions of N95s that are in stockpiles for this purpose, and we will replenish them as needed,” she said.
U.S. mask makers told Reuters that N95s, used by a range of workers and hobbyists, are designed for adult faces and lungs. Just a handful of U.S. manufacturers make KN95s and other high-quality protective masks specifically for children, they said.
The Biden administration last week reached out to the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA) and its members for information on their mask supplies, group President Lloyd Armbrust told Reuters.
Armbrust is also chief executive of Texas mask maker Armbrust American, which makes adult N95s as well as KN95s for adults and children. He said the Biden administration seems to be interested in creating a U.S. manufacturing base for protective masks for children.
AMMA members, which do not include major government providers like 3M and Honeywell International, are capable of producing nearly 67 million KN95 and surgical masks for children – not including opportunities to convert existing lines to make more masks for that group, a spokesman said.
“We are ready to provide protective children’s masks for American families,” Armbrust said.
—Reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Heather Timmons, Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis