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Biden to Give Away 400M N95 Masks      01/19 06:18


   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Biden administration will begin making 400 million 
N95 masks available for free to Americans starting next week, now that federal 
officials are emphasizing their better protection against the omicron variant 
of COVID-19 over cloth face coverings.

   The White House announced Wednesday that the masks will come from the 
government's Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of 
the highly protective masks on hand. The masks will be available for pickup at 
pharmacies and community health centers across the country. They will begin 
shipping this week for distribution starting late next week, the White House 

   This will be the largest distribution of free masks by the federal 
government to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In early 2020, 
then-President Donald Trump's administration considered and then shelved plans 
to send masks to all American at their homes. President Joe Biden embraced the 
initiative after facing mounting criticism this month over the inaccessibility 
-- both in supply and cost -- of N95 masks as the highly transmissible omicron 
variant swept across the country.

   After facing similar criticism over a winter shortage of COVID-19 at-home 
test kits, Biden this week launched a website for Americans to order four rapid 
tests to be shipped to their homes for free, with the first tests to ship later 
this month.

   The White House said the masks will be made available at pharmacies and 
community health centers that have partnered with the federal government's 
COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated its 
guidance on face coverings to more clearly state that properly fitted N95 and 
KN95 masks offer the most protection against COVID-19. Still, it didn't 
formally recommend N95s over cloth masks.

   The best 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," CDC Director Dr. 
Rochelle Walensky said last week.

   Details were not immediately available on the specifics of the program, 
including the sort of masks to be provided, whether kid-size ones will be 
available and whether the masks could be reworn.

   The White House said that "to ensure broad access for all Americans, there 
will be three masks available per person."

   N95 or KN95 masks are more widely available now than at any other time 
during the pandemic, though they are often more costly than less-protective 
surgical masks or cloth masks.

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