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In an effort to fulfill President Biden’s goal of having all Americans wear face masks through his first 100 days in office to limit the spread of COVID-19, the White House announced Wednesday that it plans to deliver more than 25 million masks to communities hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense will begin distributing the “high-quality” cloth masks to approximately 1,300 community health centers as well as 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in March, the White House said in a press release.
Anyone living in these communities will be eligible to pick up the free masks and will be encouraged to take an individually wrapped package of two for each person in their household. An estimated 12 million to 15 million Americans will receive masks, the White House said.
The cost of the program, which will continue through May, will be $86 million, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday.
Zients said the plan is part of the administration’s “equity strategy.”
“Not all Americans are wearing masks regularly, not all Americans have access and not all masks are equal,” he said. “With this action, we are helping to level the playing field, giving vulnerable populations quality, well-fitted masks.”
The initiative, Zients added, will not affect availability of masks for health care workers.
The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected the poor and communities of color. Recent studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Black (13.8 percent) and Hispanic or Latino (11.9 percent) people are more likely to test positive for COVID-19 as compared with non-Hispanic whites (7 percent). Other studies cited by the CDC show that 34 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths were among non-Hispanic Black people, though this group accounts for only 12 percent of the total U.S. population.
On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order requiring face masks to be worn by federal employees at all government agencies. A week later, the CDC issued a sweeping mask mandate requiring they be worn by all travelers on airplanes, trains, buses and ride shares, and at transportation hubs including airports, bus or ferry terminals, and train and subway stations.
Under former President Donald Trump, a push by the CDC to mandate masks in transit was blocked, and the agency instead issued only strong recommendations encouraging masks when social distancing was not possible. Trump also rejected efforts by Congress to mandate mask use.
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