Biden to send millions of free masks to health centers and other groups serving low-income people

Trump administration had weighed sending masks to all Americans

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Washington earlier this year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Washington earlier this year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 24, 2021 at 12:57pm

The Biden administration plans to send 25 million reusable cloth masks directly to community health centers and food banks to protect the communities hardest hit by COVID-19 from rapidly spreading the virus and increasing the likelihood of mutations.

"One of the most impactful things we can do is wear a mask, and this is so important during this critical period where cases are declining, but variants that spread more easily are increasing throughout the country," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said.

The masks will go to 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country. The masks are expected to reach an estimated 12 million to 15 million Americans. COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said the program will cost $86 million and will not impact the delivery of masks to health care workers.

White House public health officials stressed that the country is at an inflection point when it comes to COVID-19. Cases and infection rates are dropping as vaccine distribution ramps up, but emerging, highly contagious virus variants threaten to thwart the nation's progress.

Scientists have already discovered several COVID-19 variants in the United States and have said the B.1.1.7 variant from the United Kingdom could be the dominant virus strain in this country by March. Normal virus mitigation efforts, such as masking and distancing, can help slow the spread of these highly transmissible variants.

Meanwhile, the federal government plans to increase the U.S. supply of vaccines to states and pharmacies.

States should receive 14.5 million vaccine doses this week, up from 13.5 million last week, Zients said. This marks a 70 percent supply increase to states during the Biden-Harris administration. The administration will provide another 2.1 million doses directly to pharmacies.

Last week, the administration experienced weather-related shipping delays due to severe weather, but at this point, officials say they have completely caught up on shipments to states.

The administration's task force encouraged states to work around the clock and on the weekends and said the federal government could help provide backup if needed.

More shots may be on the market soon, Zients noted, as the Food and Drug Administration is expected to make a decision on Johnson & Johnson's one-shot vaccine candidate. An FDA advisory committee will meet Friday to discuss that vaccine, and if the agency follows the timeline of previously authorized vaccines, a green light could come as soon as this weekend.

The administration would be able to immediately distribute 3 million to 4 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week if it's authorized, which would directly translate into 3 million to 4 million vaccinated people. Johnson & Johnson is contracted to provide 100 million doses to the U.S. by the end of June, but Zients said the administration is working to accelerate that timeline.

The CDC is doing more genomic sequencing of virus samples to help track variants. Walensky announced that virus sequencing had increased from 400 samples per week when she took office to 9,000 samples per week.

Public health officials are also investigating the threat of "long COVID," a condition in which people don't fully recover from the virus for several weeks or longer. The National Institutes of Health announced yesterday that it launched a new initiative to study this issue because large numbers of patients continue to feel symptoms long after they've recovered from the initial stages of the virus.

Symptoms include brain fog, sleep disorders, fevers, gastrointestinal issues, or depression, and they can range from mild to nearly complete incapacitation.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said scientists hope to learn more about the underlying causes of long COVID and who is most vulnerable.

Walensky said broader COVID-19 trends are headed in the right direction as U.S. cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all rapidly declining. Average daily cases declined 25 percent over the past week to about 64,000 cases per day, which is slightly less than last summer’s peak of 67,00 reported cases per day. An average of 6,500 patients with COVID-19 were admitted to the hospital each day last week, down 16 percent down from the week before. The most recent seven-day average for daily COVID-19 deaths was slightly less than 2,000, representing a 35 percent decline compared to the prior week.