Biden under fire for resisting calls to distribute N95 masks to all

Biden under fire for resisting calls to distribute N95 masks to all
(Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden takes his mask off to deliver remarks on COVID-19 and the economy, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in the East Room of the White House.

The Biden administration faced growing backlash Wednesday for resisting calls from public health experts and progressives to distribute N95 masks to all U.S. households to help fight the Omicron wave, which is pushing new coronavirus infections to record-shattering highs nationwide.

An unnamed senior administration official sparked outrage by claiming in an interview with Politico that because "half the country won't wear any mask," widespread distribution of high-quality face coverings would be pointless.

"It may be popular in certain corners of Twitter, but for masking to work as a public health tool, people need to actually wear them," the official said. "To prevent spread, the focus should be maximizing the number of people simply wearing a mask in the first place, not shifting the goalposts to urge everyone to go above and beyond to use high filtration masks to make it less likely they themselves will inhale particles."

The official's comment led New Republic contributing editor Osita Nwanevu to tweet sardonically that "the official policy on proper masks right now is, 'I dunno, see if you can find something that isn't counterfeit on Amazon.'"

Gizmodo's Matt Novak noted that even granting the unsubstantiated premise that half the country wouldn't wear freely distributed N95s, "the other half of the country, ostensibly Joe Biden's base, would like to avoid getting sick and potentially dying from Covid-19."

Public health experts have vocally argued in recent weeks that the Biden administration should promote the use of N95 masks to combat Omicron, given that cloth masks appear to be less effective at preventing transmission of the highly contagious variant.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and other progressive lawmakers have echoed that message, demanding that masks be sent directly to households just as the administration is preparing to distribute hundreds of millions of rapid at-home tests.

With the Biden administration thus far declining to act, Sanders is expected to unveil a bill Wednesday that would ensure N95 masks are distributed to every U.S. household—a proposal that the Vermont senator has been advocating since the early stages of the pandemic.

"All Americans should have face masks that will keep them safe," Sanders tweeted Tuesday. "I will be introducing legislation tomorrow for N95 masks to be sent to every household in the country. This will save lives and reduce healthcare costs."

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that he will be introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

Politico reported Tuesday that some administration officials—including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy—and outside White House allies have pressured President Joe Biden to adopt the approach Sanders and others are pushing as the Omicron strain wreaks havoc across the country.

Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and former Covid-19 adviser to the Biden transition team, told Politico that she has called on the White House to "provide N95 and KN95 masks through the website" the administration is standing up as part of its plan to distribute at-home tests to any American who requests them.

With the White House deliberating its mask policies, the Centers for Disease Control is reportedly considering updating its guidance to recommend that all people—not just healthcare personnel—wear N95 or KN95 masks whenever possible.

Such guidance would be difficult for many to follow in the absence of coordinated federal policy aimed at distributing such high-quality masks nationwide. At present, N95 masks can be hard to find in the U.S., particularly amid the sea of fakes being sold by online retailers.

Last month, as Common Dreams reported, a coalition of public health experts and advocates launched a campaign urging the Biden administration to send "an ample and continuous supply of free rapid at-home tests and N95-quality masks to every household in America twice a month through May 2022."

Such high-quality masks, said the coalition, are "necessary to keep the virus at bay."

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