The masks -- which are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile -- will be made available at a number of local pharmacies and community health centers, the official said, adding that the program will be "fully up and running by early February."
"This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history," the official said.
The 400 million non-surgical N95 masks amount to more than half of the 750 million stored in the US' Strategic National Stockpile, a figure that tripled over the last year as the White House sought to boost reserves. The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that well-fitting respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health -- such as N95 masks -- offer "the highest level of protection" against Covid-19.
The administration's step comes as the US grapples with an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases. An average of more than 750,000 new Covid-19 infections were reported every day over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
"I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it," Biden said last week in remarks on his administration's coronavirus response. "But there is a -- they're a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of the highly transmittable Omicron variant. So, please, please wear the mask."
Earlier this month, the CDC changed its mask guidelines to recommend that people "wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently."
"Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There's no place for them in light of Omicron," CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, recently said on "CNN Newsroom."
Beyond masks, the federal government has also quietly launched its website to sign up for free Covid-19 tests, allowing people to order a maximum of four tests shipped directly to their household.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed Tuesday that the government website to order free tests was up and running as part of a "beta phase" ahead of the government website's formal rollout Wednesday morning.
A White House official released the following statement:
Experts agree that masking is an important tool to control the spread of COVID-19. That's why the President has consistently called on Americans to wear a mask in indoor public spaces. And, since taking office, the Biden administration has taken significant action, including using the Defense Production Act, to ensure the U.S. has enough masks so that frontline workers and all Americans can protect themselves. As a result, the U.S. has tripled the number of N95 masks in the Strategic National Stockpile since January 2021 - to more than 750 million N95 masks. Today, there is ample supply of high-quality masks for health care workers, and high-quality masks are also widely available to the American public online and in stores.
To further increase access and ensure Americans who need masks have access to them, last week, the President announced the Administration would make high-quality masks available to all Americans for free.
To that end, today, the Administration is announcing that it is making available 400 million non-surgical N95 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile for free at tens of thousands of convenient locations nationwide. This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.
To ensure accessing these masks is easy and convenient, the Administration is leveraging the federal retail pharmacy program and the federal community health center program, so that free masks are available at many of the same convenient and trusted locations Americans go to get vaccinated and boosted. N95 masks will be available for the public to pick up at tens of thousands of local pharmacies, as well as at thousands of community health centers across the country. The Administration is starting to ship masks at the end of this week, and masks will start to be available at pharmacies and community health centers late next week. The program will be fully up and running by early February.
This historic step builds on the significant actions the Biden Administration has already taken to increase masking and access to masks: By the end of his first full day in office, President Biden signed Executive Orders to require people to wear masks in federal buildings and land, and on airplanes and trains. Last year, the Administration distributed more than 30 million masks to food banks and community health centers to ensure the highest-risk and hardest-hit communities had access to masks. In addition, Administration has and will continue to make masks available for health care and other essential workers through states. Altogether, we've already deployed over 23.5 million masks and respirators to states across the country, including 1.5 million just since the start of the new year.
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