US to distribute 400 million free N95 masks in COVID-19 fight

View of N95 face masks at a factory that produces 40,000 N95 masks per day, in Mexico City on May 21, 2020. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP)

BRASILIA / THE HAGUE / LONDON / VIENNA / KYIV / WASHINGTON / LOS ANGELES – The US government will make 400 million non-surgical "N95" masks from its strategic national stockpile available for free to the public starting next week, a White House official said, as the Biden administration tries to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move comes after US President Joe Biden and his team faced criticism for not doing enough to foster masking or bolster testing as the Omicron variant rages across the country, and hospitalizations hit a new record

Snug-fitting N95 face masks, so-called because they filter at least 95 percent of particulate matter from the air, will be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers this week, the official said, and will be available for pickup late next week.

The US government is leveraging the "federal retail pharmacy program" it used for vaccines, the White House said, as well as federally funded health clinics that serve minority groups hit hard by COVID infections and deaths.

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Retail chain CVS, which has nearly 10,000 US pharmacy locations including within Target stores, and Walgreens, which has over 9,000 stores, plan to distribute free masks, company spokespeople said.

The move comes after US President Joe Biden and his team faced criticism for not doing enough to foster masking or bolster testing as the Omicron variant rages across the country, and hospitalizations hit a new record.

The administration also made free rapid home tests available via a website that launched officially on Wednesday.

Multilayered masks like the N95 that form a seal around the nose and mouth are considered especially effective at preventing virus spread. Last week the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans wear the "the most protective mask" they can.

Hospitals have recovered from the desperate N95 shortages of the early pandemic of 2020, but several executives told Reuters that healthcare supply chains remain fragile.

On Dec 29, there were 747 million N95s in the US government's Strategic National Stockpile, 59 times pre-pandemic levels, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services

On Dec 29, there were 747 million N95s in the US government's Strategic National Stockpile, 59 times pre-pandemic levels, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

US mask makers told Reuters they have the machines to make millions of N95s each month, and that they prioritize healthcare workers.

3M, the largest manufacturer of N95 respirators in the United States, has the capacity to make more than 2 billion of those masks a year at factories in South Dakota, Nebraska and elsewhere in the world, spokesperson Jennifer Ehrlich said.

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3M has "already supplied the federal and state governments with hundreds of millions of N95s that are in stockpiles for this purpose, and we will replenish them as needed," she said.

US mask makers told Reuters that N95s, used by a range of workers and hobbyists, are designed for adult faces and lungs. Just a handful of US manufacturers make KN95s and other high-quality protective masks specifically for children, they said.

The Biden administration last week reached out to the American Mask Manufacturer's Association and its members for information on their mask supplies, group President Lloyd Armbrust told Reuters.

Armbrust is also chief executive of Texas mask maker Armbrust American, which makes adult N95s as well as KN95s for adults and children. He said the Biden administration seems to be interested in creating a US manufacturing base for protective masks for children.

AMMA members, which do not include major government providers like 3M and Honeywell International, are capable of producing nearly 67 million KN95 and surgical masks for children – not including opportunities to convert existing lines to make more masks for that group, a spokesman said.

Austria

Austria's conservative-led government said on Thursday it was introducing a national lottery to encourage holdouts to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, hours before parliament was due to pass a bill introducing a national vaccine mandate.

Roughly 72 percent of Austria's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe.

New daily infections surged to a new record on Wednesday as the extremely contagious Omicron variant spread further, but the government wants to avoid another national lockdown, since the country emerged from its fourth one only last month.

In this file photo taken on June 25, 2016,
a pedestrian shelters from the rain beneath a Union flag themed umbrella as they walk near the Big Ben clock face and the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament in central London. (JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

Britain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that next week will see the end of Plan B COVID-19 restrictions, which include mandatory rules for mask-wearing, vaccine certificates and guidance to work from home.

The prime minister also told the House of Commons, lower house of the British Parliament, that the legal requirement on people with coronavirus to self-isolate would be allowed to lapse when the self-isolation regulations expire on March 24, and that date could be brought forward.

Britain registered 108,069 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 15,506,750, according to official figures released Wednesday

In addition, Johnson announced an immediate end to the need for pupils to wear masks at secondary schools, but said the government will still suggest the use of face coverings in cramped or crowded spaces.

Restrictions on care home visits will also be further eased, with the changes to be set out in the coming days.

However, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has said face masks will still be needed for travelers on Transport for London services, despite the prime minister's earlier announcement that mandatory mask-wearing will be scrapped from next Thursday.

Latest data shows the Omicron wave has "peaked nationally" and hospital admissions in London are falling, Johnson said.

Britain registered 108,069 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 15,506,750, according to official figures released Wednesday.

The country also reported a further 359 coronavirus-related deaths, raising its national death toll from COVID-19 to 152,872.

More than 90 percent of people aged 12 and over in Britain have had their first dose of vaccine, more than 83 percent have received both doses, and over 63 percent have received a booster, according to the latest figures.

A health worker poses with a syringe with dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Museum of Tomorrow where adults and children between the ages of five and eleven are being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, in Rio de Janeiro on Jan 18, 2022. (CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

Americans

COVID-19 infections are reaching new peaks in the Americas with 7.2 million new cases and more than 15,000 COVID-19-related deaths in the last week, the Pan American Health Organization said on Wednesday.

"The virus is spreading more actively than ever before," PAHO Director Carissa Etienne told a briefing.

The Caribbean has had the steepest increase in infections since the start of the two-year-old pandemic, the regional agency said. In North America, the United States and Canada are experiencing a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Given a shortage of testing, PAHO recommended that countries prioritize rapid antigen tests for people with COVID-19 symptoms and who are at risk of spreading the virus.

Even though more than 60 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Omicron is spreading rapidly in all regions, said PAHO Incident Manager Sylvain Aldighieri.

The variant's advance in coming weeks and months will depend on public health measures to contain it, including use of masks and social distancing and above all vaccinations, to reduce the severity of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, he said.

Brazil reported a record 137,103 cases of the coronavirus in 24 hours as Omicron spread in Latin America's largest country, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, as new infections soared above the previous daily record of 115,228 in June last year.

Brazil has the world's third highest death toll from COVID-19 after the United States and Russia, according to a Reuters tally.

In this file photo taken on March 5, 2021, a Kenyan health worker prepares to administer a dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to her colleagues, part of the COVAX mechanism by GAVI (The Vaccine Alliance), to help fight against the COVID-19. (SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Gavi

The chairman of the Gavi vaccine alliance, Jose Manuel Barroso, said on Wednesday that an additional $5.2 billion is needed to continue to deliver vaccines at scale.

Speaking at a news briefing, Barroso said it was critical to continue to keep up the pace of vaccine supply through the COVAX global vaccine-sharing program, as more than 3 billion people in the world have yet to receive their first dose.

Gavi Chief Executive Seth Berkley said there was a need to raise the additional funds in the next three months to establish a pandemic pool of a minimum 600 million additional doses, strengthen countries' delivery systems, and finance ancillary costs for syringes and transport.

"If we achieve this goal, we believe that up to one and a quarter million deaths can be prevented in the next year alone… economic cost of the pandemic could be reduced."

Last week, COVAX reached a milestone of delivering 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Speaking at the same event, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said scaling up the delivery capacity of COVAX is critical to meeting the UN agency's target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population in poorer nations by mid-2022.

France

France registered more than 436,000 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, after reporting a record 464,769 new cases on Tuesday, health ministry data showed.

The seven-day moving average of new cases jumped to a new record high of more than 320,000, after breaking 300,000 on Tuesday.

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital rose by more than 700 again to 27,230, but the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care fell for the second day in a row and remained well below 4,000.

In this file photo taken on Nov 29, 2021,
passengers walk at the Schiphol airport in the Netherlands. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

Netherlands 

A vaccine adapted to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 could be available in the Netherlands by the end of April, Dutch Health Minister Ernst Kuipers wrote on Wednesday in a letter to the parliament.

In his letter, Kuipers responded to a question from Democrats 66 Member of Parliament Jan Paternotte regarding whether pharmaceutical companies Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are working on an Omicron-adapted vaccine.

"Both companies are currently working on such an adaptation," Kuipers wrote. "The creation and approval by the European Medicines Agency of such a modified vaccine takes at least 100 days."

The Dutch government reached a contractual agreement with the pharmaceutical companies that they must make every effort to adapt their vaccines to the situation, if it turns out that current vaccines do not provide sufficient protection against Omicron.

"At the moment we are not sure whether the current vaccines, after a booster, are sufficient to protect against this Omicron variant," Kuipers wrote.

Ukraine

The number of new coronavirus infections in Ukraine has more than doubled over the past three days and reached 18,479 cases as of Jan 20, the country's health ministry said on Thursday.

The ministry reported 12,815 cases on Jan 19 and 8,558 cases on Jan 18.

Ukrainian health authorities said they expected a new wave due to the Omicron coronavirus variant in late January and in February.

Following several periods of strict restrictions, the average daily number of coronavirus cases in Ukraine fell in early January to about 4,000 from more than 10,000 in early December.