Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday announced the reintroduction of legislation to get free N95 masks to all Americans to “prevent death and suffering” as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage amid an explosive surge in cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
The Masks for All Act, which has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate including Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, would ensure that all individuals—from college students to medical professionals to the unhoused—would receive a free package of three N95 respirator masks.
The program would utilize the U.S. Postal Service to deliver masks as well community spaces including schools, pharmacies, and public transportation stations as distribution sites. Public health experts have said that cloth masks—while better than nothing—may not provide sufficient protection against Omicron, which is the dominant strain in the country. N95 masks, meanwhile, can be hard to acquire.
“As we face the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, we should remember that not all face masks are created equal,” Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement. “Congress must demand the mass production and distribution of N95 masks, one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the Covid virus,” he said, calling it “an absolute scandal that in the richest country in the history of the world, high-quality masks are not more readily available to frontline workers, healthcare workers, and all Americans.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), among the Democrats leading companion legislation in the House, suggested the costs of manufacturing and distributing the masks should be no obstacle to passing the bill. “If we can afford a $778 billion defense budget,” said Khanna, “we can afford to send N95 masks to every American to keep people safe as Omicron cases spike.”
Back in July of 2020, as some states began imposing mask mandates, Khanna and Sanders first introduced the Masks for All Act. The reintroduction of the bill comes as President Joe Biden’s administration faces pressure to encourage the use of N95 masks and to distribute them to all U.S. households to help stop the spread of Omicron.
It also comes the same week Sanders and Khanna led a group of over 40 Democrats in urging Biden to urgently expand access to rapid Covid-19 tests, including by invoking the Defense Production Act to ramp up the manufacturing of kits and to ensure at-home delivery to those who need them.
“We’re facing the most contagious Covid variant yet and everyone needs access to the best protection available,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who’s co-leading the proposal in the House, said in a statement. “Along with vaccines and testing, N95 masks are one of the best tools we have for curbing the spread of the virus,” she said. “The Masks for All Act will ensure that all Americans, regardless of income level, have the resources to keep themselves, their families, and their neighbors safe.”
“If we’re asking folks to wear a mask, which is absolutely essential, it’s on us to provide one,” Khanna said at the time.