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Biden to provide 400 million N95 masks to Americans

The president hopes the new strategy will thwart a pandemic he promised to extinguish as COVID-19 cases continue to soar across the nation

As the Omicron variant surges and hospitals are pushed to capacity, the Biden administration announced a new program Wednesday to give 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks to Americans free of charge. 

Americans will be able to receive the masks at tens of thousands of local pharmacies and thousands of community health centers across the country, according to a White House official. The masks will be shipped at the end of the week and will be available late next week. The program will be in full swing by early February. 

At a Jan. 13 press conference announcing additional testing resources, Biden said masking is “part of your patriotic duty.” 

“COVID-19 is one of the most formidable enemies America has ever faced. We've got to work together, not against each other. We're Americans. We can do this,” Biden said on efforts to fight the virus. 

The masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile. According to a White House official, the administration has used the Defense Production Act to triple the supply of N95s in the stockpile since January 2021. The government now has over 750 million N95 masks which will allow them to keep a supply for health care workers while also distributing masks to the public. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance this past week to clarify that people can choose to wear N95 or KN95 masks now that supply shortages have waned. The agency also acknowledged some masks provide more protection than others, an apparent nod to reports that cloth masks do less to protect against the omicron variant. 

The administration is touting the new program as an extension of previous efforts around masking including Biden’s executive order requiring masks in federal buildings and on airplanes and trains. According to a White House official the administration has already deployed 23.5 million masks and respirators across the country as part of previous programs.

President Biden came into office a year ago promising to end the pandemic but new variants have slowed that mission. While initially focusing mostly on vaccinations, the administration has shifted in recent weeks to developing programs to distribute coveted COVID-19 tests and now masks. 

A linchpin of the administration’s effort to thwart the pandemic was stymied by the Supreme Court this past week. Biden had championed the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate as key to overcoming the pandemic that has killed over 800,000 Americans. The court did allow a vaccine mandate for health care workers at federally funded facilities to go forward. 

Wednesday also marks the rollout of Biden's program to send free COVID-19 tests to Americans. All households will be eligible to receive four rapid tests free of charge.

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President Biden says his administration is ordering 500 million more rapid COVID-19 tests to be sent to Americans via mail for free, speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.