The White House on Wednesday said that it was considering a program to offer “high-quality” masks to Americans as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads through the nation.
“We’re in the process right now of strongly considering options,” Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, told reporters at a regularly scheduled news briefing on the pandemic. He offered no details about what type of masks might be distributed, how many or when.
The White House has not yet settled on what the program will look like, according to people familiar with the discussions. One option would be making the masks available at community sites, one person familiar with the planning said.
With virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocketing across the country, the White House is under pressure to reassure Americans that it is doing all it can to battle the Omicron variant. More than 140,000 people were hospitalized with the virus on average over the last week, according to federal data on Tuesday, a record-breaking figure that surpassed last winter’s peak.
The hospitalization totals include people who test positive for the virus incidentally after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19. Public health experts say that number is significant and incidental infections can still be troublesome, but there is no national data on it.
In a frank statement at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said most Americans would be infected with the virus — a prediction that outside health experts have echoed. “What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens,” she added.
Asked about her comments at Wednesday’s briefing, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, said Dr. Woodcock meant that “virtually everybody” will likely be infected eventually. But he said, “If you’re vaccinated, and if you’re boosted the chances of your getting sick are very, very low.”
“We’re not going to eliminate that,” he said adding, “but we ultimately will control this.”
Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited health care data from Southern California indicating that people infected with the Omicron variant were far less likely to become severely ill or die compared to those who were infected with its predecessor, the Delta variant. She cited a 53 percent lower risk of hospitalization with symptoms, a 74 percent lower risk of admission to intensive care and a 91 percent lower risk of death.
The average number of new deaths rose on Tuesday to more than 1,700 a day, an increase of 40 percent over the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database.While Omicron now accounts for about nine out of every ten known virus infections, Dr. Walensky said, “I suspect the deaths we are seeing now are still from Delta.” Deaths are a lagging indicator compared to infections, and she said data over the next couple weeks is needed to assess Omicron’s impact on mortality rates.
Mr. Zients said the government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks — considered the highest quality — for health care and emergency workers.
Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, told senators on Tuesday that additional contracts for N95 masks could be finalized by February. The government is asking potential contractors to make 141 million of the masks each month at a “surge capacity,” she said.
On Wednesday, Dr. Walensky said that the C.D.C. is working to update its guidance on masks to address the differences in protection between various types. The agency continues to emphasize that people should wear a mask that fits them well, she said, adding, “The best mask for you is the one that you can wear comfortably.”
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Wednesday said that he was reintroducing legislation co-sponsored by dozens of Democratic lawmakers that would offer everyone in the United States a package of three N95 masks.
Dr. Luciana Borio, a former adviser to President Biden during the transition who has called for a revamped pandemic strategy, said a program to distribute high-quality masks would be “better late than never.”
“They can also be used by people who have recovered and are out of isolation and go back to the work force,” she said.
Albert Sun contributed reporting.