Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The Biden administration said Wednesday it plans to deliver more than 25 million cloth masks to communities throughout the nation next month in an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
White House coronavirus coordinator Jeffrey Zients announced the plan to deliver the adult- and child-sized masks to more than 1,300 community health centers, and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in March.
"While masks are widely available in many different shapes and sizes, many low-income Americans still lack affordable access to this basic protection," he said.
Zients added that Americans will be able to receive the U.S.-made masks at no cost at any of the locations and that they will be high-quality, well-fitting and washable for reuse, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
President Joe Biden alluded to the plan during a roundtable event with Black frontline workers Tuesday, saying the administration was "probably going to be sending out an awful lot of masks around the country very shortly."
When asked whether the White House would resurrect a plan to send masks to every American that was scrapped by former President Donald Trump, Zients said that may have been a good idea "months ago" but a more targeted approach was more appropriate.
"Today, masks are widely available in many different shapes and sizes. Yet, still, not all Americans are wearing masks regularly and not all masks are equal," he said.
Also Wednesday, the White House announced it would extend the national emergency declared by the previous administration in response to the coronavirus on March 13, 2020, beyond March 1, 2021.
"There remains a need to continue this national emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause significant risk to the public health and safety of the nation," Biden said in a statement.
The United States added 69,828 new cases and 2,284 deaths on Wednesday for a total of 28,313,003 infections and 504,295 fatalities since the start of the pandemic, both the highest totals of any nation, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.
In New York City, thousands of teachers returned to classrooms Wednesday to prepare for students for the first time since schools were shuttered in November and classes shifted to remote learning.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said that about 62,000 middle school students and 60,000 staff members were expected to return to 149 buildings and 335 schools.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that the state would ease some COVID-19 restrictions beginning Friday as virus numbers in the state have decreased.
The executive order lifts a modified stay-at-home order requiring people to stay at home and businesses to close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., increases the number of people permitted to gather indoors from 10 to 25, and moves a curfew for the sale of alcohol for onsite consumption from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
It also expands the capacity for event venues, permitting indoor venues with a capacity greater than 5,000 to open at 15% capacity, while outdoor venues can open at 30% capacity.
Also Wednesday, the office of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced he tested positive for COVID-19 after identifying on Sunday that he had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
"He was feeling ill and tested negative for COVID-19 on Sunday morning but immediately quarantined to reduce his possible exposure to others," his office said, adding he was at home with mild symptoms on Wednesday.