Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) reintroduced legislation on Wednesday that would allow the federal government to send three N95 respirator masks to every person in America.
Sanders first introduced the legislation, called the Masks for All Act, in summer 2020, but Congress did not bring it up for a vote. But as the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to spread, Sanders urged lawmakers to use this second opportunity to arm all Americans with better protective gear.
“It is 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, health care workers, and all Americans,” Sanders said in a statement on Wednesday.
More than 50 congressional Democrats are backing the bill, Sanders’ office said.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who is co-sponsoring the House version of the bill, echoed Sanders, saying Congress must prioritize this type of spending.
“If we can afford a $778 billion defense budget, we can afford to send N95 masks to every American to keep people safe as Omicron cases spike,” he wrote in a statement.
The Masks for All Act would appropriate $5 billion for the domestic manufacturing, procurement and distribution of N95 masks, which filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. Recent data shows that such masks protect wearers against omicron-infected, unmasked people for up to two and a half hours ― compared to just 20 to 30 minutes of protection provided by cloth or surgical masks.
The Washington Post reported Monday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may soon formally recommend people wear these better masks. That’s a shift away from its previous guidance, which was crafted when there was a shortage of N95 masks and the agency needed to ensure health care workers had access to them.
“We are proposing that we do what our public health experts and scientists say we must do: provide all of our people with high-quality, N95 masks without cost, which could prevent death and suffering and save huge amounts of health care dollars,” Sanders said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, counterfeit N95 masks have proliferated as customers scramble for better protection. The CDC estimates that 60% of masks marketed as N95 are fake.