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Covid-19 and test news: Live updates

PicturePresident Biden on Thursday when he highlighted his plan to distribute free coronavirus tests and masks to the American people.
Credit...Doug Mills / The New York Times

The Biden administration, which is facing calls from public health experts to distribute high-quality masks to the American public, will on Wednesday announce that it will make 400 million non-surgical N95 masks available free of charge at health centers and retail pharmacies across the United States. states.

The move, which officials call the "largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history," comes days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guide to recognize that fabric masks do not offer as much protection as surgical masks or respirators.

N95 respirators, so named because they can filter out 95 percent of all airborne particles when used properly, were in short supply early in the pandemic. According to the CDC's new description of masks, well-fitting respirators, including N95s, offer the highest level of protection.

Wednesday was also the formal launch day for covidtests.gov, the administration's new website that allows Americans to order corona tests at home for free. The site was quietly rolled out Tuesday.

The administration has been subjected to intense criticism for not moving forward in order to distribute both tests and masks to the public, especially as the Omicron variant provides a huge increase in cases. Some public health experts have suggested that the federal government should send N95 masks to every household.

Jeff Zients, President Bidens' coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters last week that the administration was "actively exploring" ways to make high-quality masks available.

The White House said in a statement Wednesday that the government would begin sending N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers by the end of this week, and that the masks were expected to be available by the end of next week. The program would be in full gear in early February, the statement said.

The masks will come from the strategic national warehouse, the country's emergency reserve, which was heavily depleted at the beginning of the pandemic, leaving health personnel without masks and other personal protective equipment essential to fight the new virus.

A study by The New York Times published in March showed that stocks for years were heavily weighted toward protecting against bioterrorist attacks; through most of the last decade, almost half of its budget was spent on the anthrax vaccine.

China made half of the world's masks before the coronavirus appeared there, and the country hoarded them, leaving American hospitals - and the rest of the world - in search of supplies. As recently as December 2020, the United States was still facing an alarming shortage of personal protective equipment.

The Biden administration promised to rectify these shortcomings. At a Senate hearing last week, Dawn O'Connell, assistant secretary of emergency and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the warehouse now had 737 million N95 masks, all from domestic manufacturers.

The government is also asking for proposals from companies that have the ability to increase production to 141 million N95 masks a month in a crisis, and who would be able to maintain production at a much lower rate when demand is lower, so the nation would never again be caught in an emergency for public health, Ms O'Connell said.

The idea, she said, is that inventory should "hold this capacity that we currently have, even when demand falls."

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