Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has introduced legislation to send N95 masks to U.S. households as the Biden administration drags its feet on plans to issue high-quality masks to all Americans.
“Today I introduced legislation, along with more than 50 of my colleagues, to produce N95 masks, one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of Covid-19, and distribute them to every American for free,” Sanders said on Wednesday.
Sanders has previously introduced similar legislation to Wednesday’s proposal. In July 2020 – just as health officials were recommending widespread mask-wearing – Sanders proposed sending high-quality, reusable masks to every person in the country through the United States Postal Service.
Recent research has found that high-quality masks like KN95s or N95s are significantly more effective at preventing spread of the virus. As such, some health officials have begun recommending that people swap out cloth masks for more protective options like a surgical mask, KN95s or N95s.
Not all masks are created equal. pic.twitter.com/eLtBkbfk5c
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 10, 2022
But even as lower-level health authorities have recommended better masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stopped short of recommending them. Recent reporting finds that the CDC is currently weighing issuing such guidance. The guidance would say that, if people can “tolerate wearing a KN95 or N95 mask all day, you should,” according to The Washington Post.
The Biden administration is also considering a plan to send high-quality masks, potentially including N95s or KN95s, to all who want them. But it’s unclear if that will come with obstacles like the administration’s recent plan to provide free at-home COVID tests nearly exclusively for people with private insurance, who would have to jump through insurer’s hoops to get reimbursements for the test costs.
Sanders has advocated for Biden to make use of the Defense Production Act, which the president can use to compel manufacturers to create medical equipment for the pandemic, to make N95s. “Not all face masks are created equal,” Sanders said over the weekend. “N95 face masks are far more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of COVID. We must utilize the Defense Production Act to mass produce these masks and distribute them to every household in the country.”
Indeed, if the CDC begins recommending use of high-quality masks, it would follow that the administration should take action to make such masks more readily available. Nearly two years into the pandemic, it is still difficult for consumers to discern where to purchase real N95s and KN95s, with countless fake or poorly contracted masks being sold online, largely on Amazon. The fakes are so convincing that, last year, hospitals and state governments bought millions of counterfeit masks, thinking they were made by 3M.
Another problem facing consumers is that N95s and KN95s can be expensive. Cheaper models can cost $1 or $2 a mask, and some manufacturers say that people shouldn’t wear N95s for more than a few hours at a time. Last year, the CDC recommended that health care workers only reuse N95s up to five times, storing the mask in a paper bag for at least five days between uses, and only reusing masks in times of major shortages.
Even if people follow these recommendations and wear masks a handful of times before disposing of them, the costs can add up. Compared to cloth masks, which are less protective but that many have been washing and reusing through the pandemic, workers may opt to continue using the cheaper cloth mask option over the recurring cost of N95s or KN95s.
If the government is interested in preventing spread of the virus, the government should be providing high-quality masks to the public for free or low cost, progressive lawmakers have said. Members of Congress and their staffers are reportedly set to receive KN95s in response to the Omicron variant, with no such programs announced so far for the public, with people left to fend for themselves with no additional stimulus bills coming.
Sanders’s proposal comes as COVID-19 case numbers are skyrocketing in the country, with the highest case rate by far throughout the pandemic. According to The New York Times, an average of over 761,000 people are currently testing positive for the virus each day as of Tuesday, an increase of nearly 200 percent over two weeks ago.
New cases are driven nearly exclusively by the Omicron variant. The new variant is more transmissible than previous versions of COVID, and appears to be causing higher numbers of breakthrough cases, even in people who have been fully vaccinated and boosted. In other words, masking is just as important now as it has ever been, regardless of vaccination status.