It's time to supply everyone with free N95 masks — and for us to use them, too


Lately, it seems that our health officials' priorities are shifting.

Staffing shortages are everywhere due to a near-exponential increase in COVID-19 infection and the omicron variant exacerbating frontline workers' — entirely justifiable — reticence to actually work.

That undoubtedly played a role in shorter federal COVID quarantine guidelines.

"On balance, if you look at the safety of the public and the need to have society not disrupted, this was a good choice," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease doctor, told NBC.

Let's be clear: The Biden administration is weighing the benefits of getting COVID-positive workers back to their jobs against the risks that these people will inadvertently sicken others or suffer prolonged illness themselves.

We're already seeing disrupted supply chains, long check-out lines and overwhelmed hospitals. If too many essential workers are out sick — or quarantining without illness — there's a genuine risk that the economy as we know it will shut down.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, wears a face mask as he arrives for the the White House COVID-19 Response Team's regular call with the National Governors Association in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in Washington. Fauci says the U.S. should consider a vaccination mandate for domestic air travel as coronavirus infections surge. To date the Biden administration has balked at the idea, anticipating legal entanglements. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Increasingly, it seems, our political leaders are erring on the side of protecting the economy and avoiding further disruption.

We're not even sure we disagree with this, as much as the new quarantine guidelines feel like a useful hypocrisy. But if this system is going to work, workers need to be able to quickly get tested and to trust that they won't get sick on the job.

So far, at least, that hasn't been happening.

Anyone who's tried to get a COVID test in recent weeks already knows this: Appointments are hard to come by and the results are so slow you might as well assume you're positive.

This week, the Biden administration announced that private insurers would be required to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 testing starting Saturday. Based on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services guidelines, you can get up to eight free COVID tests per month — enough, essentially, to test anytime you have an inkling you've been exposed.

It's long overdue. (Assuming you can actually find these at-home tests — pharmacies sell out of them as quickly as they are stocked.)

But there's yet another problem.

Increasingly, it's clear that cloth masks do not lend enough protection against the highly-transmissible omicron variant — nevermind that large swaths of the public refuse to wear them at all. And low-wage workers forced to serve unmasked customers don't have the option of buying more protective N95 or KN95 masks, which are designed to filter out at least 95 percent of potentially infectious particles in the air.

A study conducted last year by scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the typical two-layer, woven nylon mask provided less than 45% filtration; a cotton bandana offered 49%; a single-layer mask managed 39%; and a polyester gaiter just 38%. Surgical masks, meanwhile, afforded 72% and an N95 respirator filtered out 98% of airborne particles.

The CDC is reportedly considering new guidance to recommend the more protective N95-style masks; of course, with the caveat that the masks are most effective when worn consistently and with the proper fit.

At this point, we shouldn't just be recommending this.

We should be using the resources of the federal government to make the masks widely available, much in the way the city of Milwaukee, Wis., handed out a half-million N95 masks or the state of Connecticut plans to distribute 6 million of them.