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President Joe Biden with face mask

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a mask as he gives remarks on his administration's response to the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country on January 13, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Catching Up With Progressives, Biden to Provide N95s Nationwide

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who introduced the Masks for All Act in July 2020, called the move "a good first step."

Julia Conley

Eighteen months after Sen. Bernie Sanders first introduced legislation to ensure everyone in the U.S. would receive face masks to protect against Covid-19, the White House on Wednesday followed public health guidance by announcing it will make N95s available for free nationwide.

"It's starting to work. Demand more. Demand better."

Drawing from the Strategic National Stockpile, which now has 737 million domestically-manufactured N95 masks after shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, the Biden administration will supply 400 million of the nonsurgical respirators to pharmacies and community health centers across the country later this week. The White House is calling the plan the "largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history."

The N95s, which can filter out 95% of airborne particles when used correctly, will be available by the end of next week, according to the New York Times.

Sanders praised the White House for heeding warnings that cloth masks may not provide sufficient protection against the Omicron variant, calling the move "a good first step."

According to NBC News, there has been division in the administration regarding how far officials should go in urging Americans to use the respirators.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky only recently updated the agency's guidance regarding the superior effectiveness of N95s versus cloth masks, and warned in recent days that people who don't like the fit of the respirators may stop masking altogether.

Sanders, who reintroduced his Masks for All Act last week, vehemently disagreed with Walensky on CNN, sending what Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford University, called "a clear, concise message" about upgrading masks.

The Biden administration's deployment of N95s comes as Covid-19 cases have been rising for several weeks, driven by the Omicron variant. The seven-day average for daily new cases reached 1,700 on Monday and modelers say between 50,000 and 300,000 Americans could die of Covid-19 before the wave is expected to end in mid-March.

But Karan rejected the notion that the N95s are reaching Americans too late to make a difference in public health outcomes, especially considering warnings from experts that continued vaccine apartheid is likely to result in new variants cropping up around the world and causing new surges in the United States.

"If you think we'll never need masks again, I'd say that prediction hasn't worked out too well," said Karan.

As the administration announced the distribution of N95s, officials also launched a website where Americans can order four free rapid Covid-19 tests per household. That program follows an overhaul of the White House's strategy regarding testing after Press Secretary Jen Psaki was widely denounced for openly mocking a reporter's suggestion that the U.S. government could and should provide tests to all Americans.

Two weeks after Psaki suggested the proposal was unrealistic, the White House responded to pressure from public health experts and political observers by announcing it would make 500 million tests free to the public.

Dr. Rick Bright, an immunologist who issued early warnings about the Covid-19 pandemic to the Trump administration in January 2020, said the White House's recent policy shifts regarding masks and tests are a sign that Americans and public health experts should "demand more" and "demand better" from the federal government.

After the recent successes, Bright asked, "can we upgrade ventilation and air filtration in schools, businesses, and transportation?"

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