A nurse inspects a N95 mask at a special trailer at Saint Louis University Hospital. N95 masks are made of multiple layers of synthetic material and are designed to fit very tightly around the face to form a seal around the nose and mouth. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 19 (UPI) -- The day after launching its website to distribute millions of home COVID-19 tests, the White House said Wednesday it will make available 400 million N95 masks to Americans at no cost.
President Joe Biden had previously promised that he would make the N95 masks, which offer better protection than cloth masks, available for free.
The move is the latest step by Biden's administration to curtail the Omicron coronavirus variant, which has fueled dramatic surges in cases nationwide and around the world.
The White House said the masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile, which has about 750 million masks of the N95 variety on hand.
The pending announcement was reported by NBC News, CNN and The Washington Post, citing unnamed White House officials.
N95 masks are made of multiple layers of synthetic material and are designed to fit very tightly around the face to form a seal around the nose and mouth.
A firefighter is seen wearing an N95 mask in St. Louis on January 12. The CDC has recommended N95 masks against the Omicron variant of COVID-19 because they are designed to trap extremely small particles. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Officials are calling the distribution the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history. Unlike the home COVID-19 tests, the N95 masks will be distributed through pharmacies and federal community health centers nationwide.
Dr. Tom Inglesby, the White House's COVID-19 testing coordinator, told NBC News that the N95 masks provide "better protection." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance last week to say that N95 and KN95 masks provide the highest level of protection.
"Masking is a critical public health tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask," the CDC says on its website.
"To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, CDC continues to recommend that you 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, said recently.
Officials say Biden's administration plans to have the mask distribution program fully running by early February. Adults will be able to receive as many as three masks each.
Wednesday's announcement came one day after the government launched its website to order free home COVID-19 tests. The official launch was scheduled for Wednesday, but White House said it went online early as part of a "beta" launch.
Each order contains four home coronavirus tests.