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White House to distribute 400 million free N95 masks at 'tens of thousands' of locations starting next week

The Biden administration will distribute 400 million high-quality N95 masks through "tens of thousands" of pharmacies, community clinics, and other locations starting next week, a White House official told reporters ahead of an official announcement Wednesday. Each adult will get up to three masks, and "we anticipate making additional, high-quality masks for children available in the near future," the official said. The masks will be shipped around the U.S. from the federal Strategic National Stockpile at the end of the week.

The White House, which launched a website for ordering free COVID-19 tests on Tuesday, is stepping up the federal response to the flood of cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

"This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history," the White House official said. "Experts agree that masking is an important tool to control the spread of COVID-19," especially the Omicron variant. The Centers for Disease Control advised last week that N95 or KN95 masks are more effective than disposable surgical masks, and "loosely woven cloth coverings" offer the least protection of any masks.

The Strategic National Stockpile has more than 750 million N95 masks, and "unlike earlier in the pandemic when severe shortages of personal protective equipment affected hospitals, forcing hospital staff to make homemade face shields and use bandanas, an ample supply of high-quality masks exists for health-care workers," The Washington Post reports. "Those masks are also widely available to the public online and in stores."

"I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get," President Biden acknowledged last week. And "I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it. But ... they're a really important tool to stop the spread." 

While Biden is urging people to mask up in public indoor spaces, he hasn't asked state or local governments to require them for the public at large. That sets the U.S. apart from every other Group of Seven country, all of which have mask mandates or widespread mask-wearing, said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at Boston University. "We should implement data-driven mask policies so that mask policies automatically turn on and better protect everyone and our society during surges," she suggested.