The Biden administration will distribute millions of face coverings to thousands of community health centers and food banks in an effort to help vulnerable Americans more easily mask up, officials said on Wednesday.
The federal government will distribute some 25 million masks to more than 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said at a briefing. The White House said in a press release that the masks will be available between March and May, and are expected to benefit some 12 to 15 million Americans.
"Not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, not all Americans have access, and not all masks are equal," Zients said. "With this action, we are helping to level the playing field, giving vulnerable populations quality, well-fitting masks."
Anyone who needs a mask will be able to pick one up at participating locations, Zients said, adding that the "high-quality, American-made" masks will be free, washable and available in both adult and children sizes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask-wearing as a simple, effective step in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Earlier this month, it said layering a cloth mask over a surgical mask and tying knots on the ear loops of surgical masks can offer even better protection in the face of transmissible new variants.
Biden has consistently emphasized the importance of wearing masks, and issued executive orders requiring face coverings on federal property and during interstate travel shortly after taking office.
The initiative will not impact the availability of masks for healthcare workers, according to the White House.
The Department of Health and Human Services will partner with the Department of Defense to deliver the masks to federally qualified community health centers, where staff will distribute them to recipients. Two-thirds of the people served by these health centers are living in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are unhoused, the White House said. Meanwhile, the DOD will also work with the Department of Agriculture to deliver masks through the nation's vast food bank and food pantry system.
At the same time, Zients said, the federal government will continue ramping up its efforts to get Americans vaccinated quickly and equitably.
He said the weather-related backlogs in vaccine distribution have been resolved, with some 14.5 million doses allocated to states, tribes and territories this week, and 2.1 million more going to select pharmacies.
While last week's extreme winter weather created a backlog of millions of doses, closed down clinics and lowered the 7-day average for daily vaccinations — it stands at 1.4 million doses, down from 1.7 million — Zients said that number is expected to start rising again shortly.