While the vaccine-resistant omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will distribute 10 million free KN95 masks to residents.
“We have the tools and we know what works as we face down the omicron variant of COVID-19,” Whitmer said in a statement. “By distributing 10 million highly-effective KN95 masks, we can keep families and communities safe. I encourage Michiganders to pick up a free KN95 mask at their local MDHHS office, public health department, or community organization. Together, we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.”
According to a press release, information on distribution sites will be available at Michigan.gov/MaskUpMichigan, but it looks like the site hasn’t been updated quite yet.
Whitmer’s quote seems to indicate that Michiganders are eligible for one free mask each. The CDC recommends using the single-use disposable masks no more than five times. In other words, this single free mask is a nice gesture, but let’s be real: it’s far from a pandemic game-changer. (Recall, too, that Michigan’s entire population is just under 10 million.)
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on masks, and deemed loosely woven cloth masks as providing the least protection. Fitted disposable masks like the KN95s offer better protection (while N95s, often used by health care workers, offer the highest level of protection).
The department previously distributed 3.5 KN95 masks in January 2021. The masks are in addition to the 400 million free N95 masks being made available by the Biden administration to retail pharmacies like CVS, Costco, Meijer, Walgreens, Kroger, Rite Aid, Walmart, and Sam’s Club. According to the press release, masks will also be delivered to local partners such as homeless shelters.
“We are urging Michiganders to mask up to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their communities from COVID-19,” MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement. “Wearing masks are important in helping limit the spread of COVID-19, particularly the easily spread omicron and delta variants. Today’s distribution of KN95 masks will help more Michiganders limit the spread of COVID to save lives and get back to normal sooner.”
Certainly, it’s good for the Biden and Whitmer administrations to be encouraging mask-wearing, especially proper masks. However, the response seems a bit inadequate considering we’re heading into the second year of the pandemic, and unlikely to help us “get back to normal,” whatever “normal” even means now.
It also comes shortly after the Biden administration announced that it would distribute free at-home COVID tests to U.S. residents — just two weeks after White House press secretary Jen Psaki sarcastically responded to a reporter from NPR who asked if the government would make the tests freely available by saying, “Should we just send one to every American?”
The about-face from our leaders seems to acknowledge that even though the vaccines are safe and effective and appear to at least blunt the force of breakthrough infections in the vaccinated, the U.S. COVID response over-relied on vaccinations as a policy. Not only are breakthrough infections increasing, but even after the vaccines have been freely available for many months, still only about 63% of the country is vaccinated. And as long as a stubborn group resists vaccination, and as long as much of the rest of the world remains unvaccinated, the virus will continue to spread easily, and could mutate into other variants that could also evade immunity.
There seems to be little appetite from elected officials or the public for any more 2020-style shutdowns to mitigate spread, so mask-wearing will be an important part of navigating the pandemic moving forward.
But if that’s the case, we’re going to need more than one free disposable mask.