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US to begin distributing 400m free N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers

The US government will begin distribution of 400m free N95 masks to pharmacies and community health centers this week, in the Biden administration’s latest effort to combat a surge in cases caused by the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

N95 and KN95 masks are considered more protective against Covid-19 than surgical and cloth masks, which are still widely used. The free mask distribution comes alongside the launch of a federal government website where US residents can order four free at-home rapid Covid tests per household through the postal service.

However, it also comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts the Omicron wave has peaked – though the number of new daily cases across the US still remains far higher than at any other point during the pandemic – and later than many public health experts called for.

In an announcement last week, the White House said distribution of three high-quality masks per person would “ensure broad access for all Americans” to protective equipment that was previously in short supply.

N95 masks are more widely available now than at any previous point in the pandemic. However, fakes are prevalent, and the high cost of genuine masks has at times made it difficult to obtain quality protective equipment. Masks distributed by the Biden administration will come from the federal government’s strategic national stockpile, which has 750m of the high quality masks on hand.

A similar state-level effort in Colorado recently saw enormous demand, as sites ran out of masks on the first day of distribution.

Even as the mask distribution begins this week, CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky last week stopped short of formally recommending N95 masks to protect against Covid-19. On Friday, Walensky said the best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings”.

The Biden administration’s new efforts come as the Omicron-driven surge is subsiding in some parts of the country, such as the north-east, and as Omicron cases nationally are expected to decline sharply in the coming four weeks, according to an ensemble forecast published by the CDC.

At the same time, many US hospitals are still in crisis. A record number of more than 140,000 Covid-19 patients are hospitalized nationally. More than 866,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

The shipments of free at-home Covid-19 rapid tests are expected to begin in late January, though these too come after peak demand. Millions of Americans sought Covid-19 tests before and after the December holidays, overwhelming national PCR testing capacity and clearing store shelves of at-home rapid tests.

Mask and test distribution comes as the CDC has “pivoted” on how to describe full vaccination amid a drive to persuade people to get a third dose. Nearly 20% of eligible Americans have yet to receive a single vaccine dose, meaning health authorities are working to convince new people to get vaccinated at the same time as they encourage a booster for those eligible.

Walensky said health authorities will work to get people “up to date” on vaccines, though the agency will not change the official definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a third dose.

People who have recently been double vaccinated or received their third-dose booster are far less likely to be hospitalized or die from Covid-19 compared with the unvaccinated. New data released by the CDC showed people aged 50 to 64 who completed their primary series of shots plus a booster were 44 times less likely to be hospitalized than unvaccinated peers.

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