The White House is “actively exploring” whether to make higher quality masks like KN95 and N95s available to all Americans, the administration’s Covid-19 coordinator said Wednesday, but though the omicron variant has made medical-grade masks more essential, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is so far not expected to advise that Americans should ditch their cloth masks for them.
The Biden administration is “strongly considering options to make high quality masks available to all Americans,” White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said at a press briefing Wednesday when asked about masks like N95s and KN95s, but Zients did not give any timeline or further details.
Zients’ comments follow reports that the White House is considering a program to hand out better quality masks to any American who wants one, with Politico reporting a decision could potentially come as soon as Thursday.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday the agency will update the information on its website “soon” to “provide information” about different kinds of masks and the different levels of protection they provide, so that people can make a more informed decision about “what mask is right for them.”
Walensky suggested the agency would not formally recommend that Americans wear N95s or KN95s and not wear other masks, however, saying it instead “want[s] to highlight that the best mask for you is the one you can wear comfortably.”
The CDC has recommended throughout the pandemic that Americans wear well-fitting masks that have at least two layers and a nose wire, though experts cited by Kaiser Health News say they do not believe that guidance goes far enough.
The Washington Post previously reported the CDC was considering guidance saying if Americans can “tolerate wearing a KN95 or N95 mask all day, you should.”
The CDC had previously resisted recommending people wear N95 masks because it believed at the start of the pandemic those masks should be saved for healthcare workers and worried recommending them would deplete their supply, but Zients suggested Wednesday that is no longer an issue. The official said the Biden administration has ramped up manufacturing and its stockpile of N95s and now has 750 million masks stockpiled for healthcare workers and first responders.
Medical experts have strongly urged people to upgrade their masks to N95s, KN95s or KF94s—medical-grade masks that are certified by authorities in the U.S., China and South Korea, respectively—in light of the omicron variant, as these masks are more capable of filtering out small aerosol particles. The new strain is much more transmissible, which experts say decreases the protection from cloth masks, as well as surgical masks, which are made of a higher quality material than cloth masks but fit less tightly than N95s. (Those who do wear cloth masks should layer a surgical mask underneath, experts recommend.) A growing number of mask mandates have evolved to require that people wear medical-grade masks as a result, including at many schools and in Salt Lake County, Utah. Los Angeles has mandated employers must provide surgical masks, N95s or similar masks to their workers. N95 and KN95 masks are more expensive than cloth and surgical masks, however, leading to more efforts to distribute the masks for free to those who need them. In addition to the White House’s potential plan, localities and states including Connecticut and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have started distributing N95s to residents for free, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Tuesday he was introducing legislation in Congress that would distribute them free to all Americans.
N95, KN95 Or Cloth Masks? What To Wear To Best Protect Against Omicron (Forbes)
Why we need to wear better masks (Axios)
Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus