Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The Biden administration, faced with calls from public health experts to distribute high-quality masks to the American public, said on Wednesday it was making 400 million non-surgical N95 masks available free of charge at community health centers and hospitals. retail pharmacies across the United States. .

The move, which officials call the “largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history,” comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance. to recognize that cloth masks do not provide as much protection as surgical masks or respirators.

N95 respirators, so named because they can filter out 95% of all airborne particles when used correctly, were in short supply at the start of the pandemic. According to the CDC’s new mask description, properly fitted respirators, including N95s, provide the highest level of protection.

Wednesday was also the official launch day of covidtests.gov, the administration’s new website allowing Americans to order coronavirus tests at home for free. The site was quietly rolled out on Tuesday.

The administration has come under heavy criticism for not acting sooner to distribute both tests and masks to the public, especially as the Omicron variant is fueling a huge spike in cases. Some public health experts have suggested the federal government send N95 masks to every household.

Jeff Zients, President Biden’s 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 will begin shipping N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers at the end of this week, and the masks should be available at the end of next week. The program would be in full gear in early February, according to the release.

The masks will come from the strategic national stockpile, the country’s emergency reserve, which was severely depleted at the start of the pandemic, leaving healthcare workers without masks and other essential personal protective equipment to fight the new virus.

A New York Times investigation published in March found that for years the stock had been heavily geared towards protecting against bioterrorism attacks; for most of the past decade, nearly half of its budget has been spent on the anthrax vaccine.

China was making half of the world’s masks before the coronavirus emerged there, and the country was hoarding them, leaving American hospitals — and the rest of the world — scrambling for supplies. As recently as December 2020, the United States was still facing alarming shortages of personal protective equipment.

The Biden administration has promised to fix these shortcomings. During a Senate hearing last week, Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the stockpile now contained 737 million N95 masks, all from from domestic manufacturers.

The government is also seeking proposals from companies that have the capacity to increase production to 141 million N95 masks per month in the event of a crisis, and who would be able to keep manufacturing at a much lower rate when demand is. weaker, so the nation would never again be caught short in a public health emergency, Ms O’Connell said.

The idea, she said, is for the stock to “maintain that capacity that we currently have even when demand drops.”