WASHINGTON (The Hill) – The White House announced Wednesday that it is making 400 million N95 masks available for free, part of a string of actions aimed at fighting the surging omicron variant.  

The masks will be available for pickup at “tens of thousands of local pharmacies” as well as thousands of community health centers, the White House said. The masks will begin shipping later this week and will start to become available late next week, before being “fully up and running” in early February.  

Making high-quality masks more available has been one of the areas where President Biden has been under pressure to step up the response to the virus.  

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and more than 50 Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill last week, for example, to send three N95 masks to every person in the U.S.  

Similar to action on testing, experts say the Biden administration should have acted months ago to make high-quality masks more available, but the new steps are still progressing.  

Biden first announced last week that an announcement on free high-quality masks would be coming this week.  

The masks are being deployed from the Strategic National Stockpile, which currently has more than 750 million N95 masks, triple the number in January 2021, the White House said.  

Experts have been stepping up calls for people to use higher quality masks like N95s, which offer much better protection than simple cloth masks, especially in the face of the highly-transmissible omicron variant.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that N95 masks offer the highest level of protection. Experts have also recommended KN95 masks, another type of high-quality mask, though consumers are warned to make sure the masks they are buying are not counterfeit.  

In addition to the mask announcement, a new website to order four rapid tests per residence went live on Tuesday, at covidtests.gov.