The White House Killed a USPS Plan To Send Free Masks to Every American Household in April

Photo: Stocksy / Lucas Ottone
An unpublished press release from the United States Postal Service details an early plan to distribute 650 million face masks beginning in April. The plan, blocked by the Trump administration, would have provided five reusable cotton face masks to every American household. Orleans and Jefferson parishes in Louisiana would have been the first areas to receive face coverings, with deliveries then going to King County, Washington; Wayne County, Michigan; and New York, reports the Washington Post.

Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says this could have made a remarkable difference in the way the pandemic played out by shifting public perception of face masks.

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"It would have been a powerful signal that the federal government was encouraging mask use to stop this pandemic and would have been the closest thing we have to a federal mask mandate," says Dr. Labus. "A number of states still do not have a mask mandate. If the federal government had come out strongly in favor of masks early on that would probably not be the case today. It may have changed the national mindset about the importance of mass use and we might see a lot less resistance to it today."

According to the Post, this plan was scrapped by the Department of Health and Human Services, which instead created Project America Strong to distribute “reusable cotton face masks to critical infrastructure sectors, companies, healthcare facilities, and faith-based and community organizations across the country,” at a cost of $675 million. About 600 million masks have been distributed so far, and the program's website states that it is no longer accepting requests and encourages people to make their own masks. It is likely that those who received masks through Project American Strong would have still received masks through the original, more comprehensive plan.

“There was concern from some in the White House Domestic Policy Council and the office of the vice president that households receiving masks might create concern or panic,” said one administration official.

A June meta-analysis found that wearing face masks resulted in an 80-85 percent reduction in transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.  “We are continually accumulating more data to suggest that masks are beneficial," says Timothy Brewer, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA. Wearing a mask protects both you and others, especially given the ability of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers of the virus to spread it.

"The principle is the same as covering your nose or mouth when you're coughing or sneezing," says Dr. Labus. "By stopping the particles with the virus at the source, it is easier to protect other people from exposure than trying to protect them from things that are in the air."

The unpublished press release detailing the original plan to distribute free face masks is one of more than 10,000 documents the Postal Service released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by watchdog group American Oversight.  USPS alleged on Thursday that the documents were improperly released, asking American Oversight to take them down, reports NBC. The group took down some of the documents, with the intent to remove them for "24 hours as we wait for USPS to specify which pages it believes should continue to be withheld." Some documents remain published.

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