With Capitol Hill—like much of the United States—experiencing a major spike in Covid-19 cases, members of Congress and their offices are reportedly set to receive KN95 masks to help stem the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
"There are unprecedented infections around the entire country! What about the general public?"
The public, meanwhile, has largely been left to fend for itself as much of Congress and the Biden administration ignore calls for action to ensure widespread distribution of high-quality masks.
According to an email sent to House staffers last week and obtained by the Washington Post, "The Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) has updated its PPE monthly allotment program to include KN95 masks for all House offices" as experts warn that widely used cloth masks are less effective at preventing Omicron transmission.
"The Office of Attending Physician (OAP) supports CDC guidelines recommending the use of a face cover such as the KN95 mask when in public spaces, particularly when a six-foot separation cannot be maintained between two individuals," reads the email, which was sent after the U.S. Capitol's attending physician raised alarm over an "unprecedented" surge in coronavirus infections.
Under the new allotment program, each House office in Washington, D.C. will get 40 KN95 masks per month.
"This is so grotesque," said Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves. "Members of Congress (and White House staff) have full access to good masks (and I bet tests too!). The little people—meaning the rest of us—are on our own."
Abraar Karan, a physician and infectious disease expert at Stanford University, noted in response to the new House safety protocol that "there are unprecedented infections around the entire country!"
"What about the general public?" he asked.
The U.S. is currently averaging roughly 700,000 new coronavirus cases per day as the Omicron variant continues to rip through the population, pushing up hospitalizations and straining overburdened healthcare systems.
Capitol physician Brian Monahan wrote in a letter to lawmakers that, in order to combat the latest coronavirus wave, high-quality face coverings are "a critical necessity unless the individual is alone in a closed office space or eating or drinking in a food service area."
Monahan noted that based on a limited sample of positive tests on Capitol Hill, 61% of the cases were the Omicron variant.
Last month, as Omicron was detected in state after state across the U.S., Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged Congress to guarantee the mass production and distribution of N95 masks to all households.
In July of 2020, Sanders introduced legislation that would have required the federal government to manufacture and deliver high-quality masks to every person in the country—but the bill has gone nowhere.
The Biden administration is in the process of enacting a plan to distribute free at-home coronavirus tests to U.S. households that request them, but it has yet to take similar action on masks. In the absence of federal leadership, some local governments have begun handing out free masks to residents.
"With this variant, it's really good to have an upgraded mask," Nick Tomaro of the Milwaukee Health Department said as the city launched its mask distribution effort. "This is the opportunity to get it."
While N95 shortages are not currently as acute as they were in the early stages of the pandemic, genuine masks can often be difficult to find, particularly in an online marketplace still awash in counterfeits.
"Not all face masks are created equal," Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, tweeted Sunday. "N95 face masks are far more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of Covid. We must utilize the Defense Production Act to mass produce these masks and distribute them to every household in the country."