WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free to Americans starting next week.
The White House said Wednesday the masks would 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. The White House says the masks will begin shipping this week for distribution starting late next week.
The White House's new effort comes days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to recommend that Americans seek out surgical-grade masks over cloth masks.
Health officials say upgrading to masks with better protection will help prevent the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, which is causing record transmission of the virus.
"Cloth masks are not as good in terms of filtration or fit. Surgical masks have a better filtration but they're also not fitted. N95 masks are put through rigorous conditions for testing," said Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford University.
Previously, officials had recommended the public not purchase N95s and other surgical masks so they could be reserved for health care officials. However, the federal stockpile has grown, and officials say there is no longer a shortage of high-quality masks.
"Now that we have more inventory and we've got a very transmittable virus, it just makes sense to take every opportunity to reduce the concentration of virus that might be getting into your airways," said Dr. Scott Joy, the chief medical officer for HealthONE Physician Services Group.