Biden Will Provide 400 Million N95 Masks For Free

WASHINGTON — Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Americans who have had a hard time getting their hands on masks and at-home tests are suddenly being showered with offers of freebies — courtesy of taxpayers and the Biden administration, which had come under sharp criticism for not acting sooner.

On Wednesday, the administration announced that it would make 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks available free of charge at community health centers and retail pharmacies across the United States. The White House said that to “ensure broad access for all Americans,” there would be a limit of three masks per person.

The news came a day after the administration rolled out covidtests.gov, its new website where Americans can order at-home coronavirus tests at no cost.

Taken together, the moves represent a stepped-up effort by the White House to combat Omicron, the fast-moving coronavirus variant that first appeared in November and has fueled a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country. But some public health experts said that while the efforts were welcome, they were too late.

An investigation by The New York Times published in March 2021 found that for years, the Strategic National Stockpile was heavily weighted toward protecting against bioterror attacks; throughout most of the past decade, nearly half its budget was spent on the anthrax vaccine. At the same time, China made half the world’s masks before the coronavirus emerged there, and the country was hoarding them.

The Biden administration promised to correct the stockpile’s deficiencies. At a Senate hearing last week, Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the stockpile now had 737 million N95 masks, all from domestic manufacturers.

Lisa O’Connor, the former chief nursing officer at Boston Medical Center, said she was concerned that distributing stockpile assets to the public would put health care workers at risk.

“This precious resource should be in the hands of health care providers only, which has been the practice and guidance for 20 years,” said Ms. O’Connor, who is now a health care consultant at FTI Consulting.

But Ms. O’Connell told senators last week that the government was soliciting proposals from companies that have the ability to produce 141 million N95 masks per month in a crisis and that would be able to manufacture them at a much lower rate when demand is lower.

The idea is for the stockpile to “keep this capacity that we currently have going,” she said, “even when demand diminishes.”

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