WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden plans to distribute millions of face masks to Americans in communities hard-hit by the coronavirus beginning next month as part of his efforts to ensure “equity” in the government’s response to the pandemic.
Biden, who like Donald Trump’s administration considered sending masks to all Americans, is instead adopting a more conservative approach, aiming to reach underserved communities and those bearing the brunt of the outbreak. Trump’s administration shelved the plans entirely.
Biden’s plan will distribute masks not through the mail, but instead through Federally Qualified Community Health Centers and the nation’s food bank and food pantry systems, the White House announced Wednesday.
The Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture will be involved in the distribution of more than 25 million American-made cloth masks in both adult and kid sizes. The White House estimates they will reach 12 million to 15 million people.
“Not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, not all have access, and not all masks are equal,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients.
The White House is not distributing safer N95 masks, of which the U.S. now has abundant supply after shortages early in the pandemic.
The cloth masks adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and "certainly they meet those requirements set by our federal standard,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Biden hinted at the move Tuesday during a virtual roundtable discussion Tuesday with four essential workers who are Black, saying he expected his administration to send millions of masks to people around the country “very shortly.”
Biden has asked all Americans to wear face masks for the first 100 days of his term, pointing to models showing it could help save 50,000 lives. He also required mask-wearing in federal buildings and on public transportation in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
In late January, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 75% of Americans said they wear a mask all the time when they go out in public and are around others, and an additional 12% said they wear a mask most of the time.
Biden has made a virtue of his public displays of mask-wearing, drawing direct contrast with Trump, who only rarely was seen covering his face while president. Biden has also required the use of masks around the White House, unlike Trump, whose White House was the scene of at least three outbreaks of the virus.
Psaki suggested earlier this month that logistical concerns underpinned the decision to scale back the plans to send masks to all Americans.
“I think there are some underlying questions about how you target them — the masks — where they go to first; obviously, it couldn’t happen immediately,” she said.
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingurhut contributed to this report.