The US government will make 400 million N95 face masks available for free at pharmacies and health centers, sourcing them from the Strategic National Stockpile, the White House tweeted on Wednesday.
The announcement comes not long after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledged that the cloth masks worn by most people don’t provide as much prevention of coronavirus transmission as N95 masks or KN95 masks, the international equivalent. Some health experts have argued that the cloth masks are particularly ineffective against the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 that has pushed infection rates higher in recent weeks.
N95 masks are made with several layers of material that have better filtration than cloth masks and fit more snugly than other nonsurgical masks or face coverings, according to the CDC.
The messaging from US health officials around N95 masks has been confusing, to say the least. When the CDC released guidelines in April 2020 recommending people in the US wear “simple cloth coverings” on their faces to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, it was a reversal from its earlier stance that masks weren’t necessary at all, except for healthcare providers and people who were acutely ill. As part of that April 2020 guidance, the CDC stressed that the general public shouldn’t use surgical and N95 masks in order to reserve them for healthcare workers.
The White House didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment from The Verge on Wednesday, but the Wall Street Journal reports the free masks will be available at pharmacies and community health centers beginning next week, and the program should be in full swing by early February, with three masks available per person.