The White House said on Wednesday it was considering a program to deliver “high-quality” masks to Americans as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads across the country.
“We are currently seriously considering options,” Jeffrey D. Zients, the Covid-19 response coordinator at the White House, told reporters during a regular press briefing on the pandemic. He gave no details on what type of masks could be distributed, how many, or when.
The White House has yet to decide what the program will look like, according to people familiar with the talks. One option would be to make the masks available on community sites, said a person familiar with the planning.
As virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket across the country, the White House is under pressure to reassure Americans that it is doing all it can to fight the Omicron variant. More than 140,000 people have been hospitalized with the virus on average over the past week, according to federal data on Tuesday, a record figure that surpassed last winter’s peak.
Hospitalization totals include people who accidentally tested positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19. Public health experts say the numbers are large and accidental infections can still be bothersome, but there are no national data on this.
In a candid statement at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Dr Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said most Americans would be infected with the virus – a prediction that experts echoed healthy exteriors. “What we need to do is make sure that the hospitals can still function, the transportation, you know, the other essential services are not disrupted while this is happening,” she added.
Asked about his comments at Wednesday’s briefing, Dr Anthony S. Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said Dr Woodcock meant that “virtually everyone” is likely to be infected eventually. But he said, “If you are vaccinated and you are boosted, the chances of getting sick are very, very low. “
We are not going to “eradicate this”, he said, “but we will eventually control this”.
Dr Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited health care data from Southern California indicating that people infected with the Omicron variant were much less likely to become seriously ill or die. compared to those infected with its predecessor, the Delta variant. She cited a 53% lower risk of hospitalization with symptoms, 74% lower risk of ICU admission, and 91% lower risk of death.
The average number of new deaths rose to more than 1,700 a day on Tuesday, a 40% increase in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database. While Omicron now accounts for about nine out of ten known viral infections, Dr Walensky said, “I suspect the deaths we are seeing now are still from Delta.” Deaths are a lagging indicator of infections, and she said data over the next two weeks is needed to assess Omicron’s impact on death rates.
Mr Zients said the government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks – considered to be of the highest quality – for healthcare workers and rescue workers.
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, told senators on Tuesday that additional contracts for N95 masks could be finalized by February. The government is asking potential entrepreneurs to manufacture 141 million masks each month at “peak capacity,” she said.
Dr Walensky said on Wednesday the CDC was working to update its mask guidelines to address differences in protection between different types. The agency continues to stress that people should wear a mask that looks good on them, she said, adding, “The best mask for you is one that you can wear comfortably.”
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said on Wednesday he was reintroducing legislation co-sponsored by dozens of Democratic lawmakers that would give everyone in the United States a three-pack of N95 masks.
Dr Luciana Borio, former advisor to President Biden during the transition which called for a reshuffled pandemic strategy, said a high-quality mask distribution program would be “better late than never”.
“They can also be used by people who have recovered and come out of isolation and return to the workforce,” she said.
Albert Sun contributed reports.