WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's administration will start shipping 400 million free non-surgical N95 face masks to distribution sites nationwide this week as part of efforts to fight the surging omicron COVID-19 variant, according to the White House.
Americans will be able to pick up their masks at one of "tens of thousands" of pharmacies, thousands of community centers and other locations across the country beginning late next week, the White House said.
The move comes as the rise in omicron COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed hospitals across the country, leading to mounting criticism over Biden's ability to contain the pandemic. Recent polls have found more Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the pandemic than approve, undercutting a onetime strength for Biden.
The White House expects the program to be fully up and running by early February.
Individuals will be limited to three masks per person to ensure broad access to the program, according to Kevin Munoz, assistant White House press secretary.
The White House called the undertaking "the largest deployment of protective equipment in U.S. history." The administration this week also rolled out a new website where Americans can request up to four COVID-19 rapid tests be mailed to their households for free.
Biden hinted about the move last week, saying his administration would be announcing “how we are making high-quality masks available to American people, the American people, for free.” He noted that about one-third of Americans still say they don't wear masks of any kind to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” Biden said.
The masks will come from the U.S.'s Strategic National Stockpile, which has tripled its supply of N95 masks to 750 million in the year since Biden took office. The White House has faced increasing pressure to make more protective masks available to the public rather than less protective cloth versions.
The White House plans to rely on the same federal programs used to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to pharmacies and community centers. That means most Americans will be able to go to many of the same locations in which they received COVID-19 vaccinations to get their free masks.
The free masks are in addition to 30 million masks the Biden administration distributed to food banks and community health centers last year and 23.5 million masks and respirators sent to states. On his first day in office, Biden took action to require masks be worn in federal buildings, airplanes and trains, and he's called on Americans to continue wearing masks in all public indoors settings.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID: Biden to make 400 million N95 masks available for free