White House: We might send masks to every American

Feels late in the game for this idea, no? The vaccines are here! We’re in the fourth quarter of the pandemic!

What if it’s actually halftime, though? What if it’s not even halftime because some new vaccine-resistant variant is about to crop up and run wild? Even in the best-case scenario in which the vaccines work and we bring cases way, way down, realistically we won’t approach something like normalcy until this fall. Even at a “moderate” death rate of 1,000 per day (less than a third of what we’re currently averaging), we have another … quarter million deaths to go.

There are a lot of infections still to come. A meaningful fraction of them will result in death. Some of those infections could be prevented with masks. QED: Sending masks to every American makes sense.

Watch Ron Klain, then read on.

Remember that Trump’s administration nearly pulled the trigger on this idea a year ago. The plan, spearheaded by HHS, went far enough that the U.S. Postal Service drafted a press release to announce it. Some 650 million masks would have been mailed to American households last spring with an early rollout focused on besieged areas New York and Seattle. But it was scrapped because “[t]here 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,” one source told WaPo, a surreal claim considering that New York City was already in the thick of its ferocious outbreak. The real reason the White House nixed the idea, I assume, is that it might have strengthened arguments at the time that it was too soon to reopen for business, which was Trump’s top political priority.

Although it didn’t have to. It would have been child’s play for Trump to argue that masks were being mailed *because* we can’t all hunker down at home indefinitely. “Wear the mask and go about your business,” he might have said. If he had embraced masking early on and connected it to the reopening effort, God only knows how different the country’s pandemic trajectory — and results on election night — might have been.

One reason for Biden to follow through on mailing masks is that it’s a logical part of an “all hands on deck” approach to containment. If we’re going to throw everything we have at bringing down cases…

…then let’s be consistent about it. Another reason to mail masks is that the masks many of us are currently using are, well, crap. Scott Gottlieb warned about it in an op-ed in November:

A cotton mask offers far less protection than a surgical mask. If a cloth mask is all you can find, buy a thick one. Snug-fitting masks made of cotton-polyester blends will generally offer more protection. But even a very good cloth mask may only be about 30% protective; scarf or bandanna, 10% or less.

A surgical mask could offer you better protection, on the order of 60%. But here again, quality matters. Many of the masks sold on Amazon, which say they are for dust and allergens, aren’t surgical masks, even though they look like the blue masks worn by nurses and doctors. A real medical-procedure mask will be cleared by the Food and Drug Administration and designated as offering one of three levels of protection. Generally, a level 2 or level 3 medical mask is best.

I spent a little time recently googling for quality masks and couldn’t find anything I felt comfortable buying. There are Chinese versions of the N95 on Amazon but they’re littered with reviews like “SUCKS” or “KNOCKOFF.” There are surgical-looking masks too, but their provenance also seems dubious. One would hope/assume that any masks mailed by the U.S. government actually would have some quality control to them, which means many millions of people could be upgraded from the 30 percent protection they’re currently getting from their cloth masks to the 60 percent they’d get from a decent surgical mask.

Imagine that, though — a world where government cheese is the best cheese you can realistically hope to have. Hoo boy.

The last reason to send masks is because, with the super-contagious strains circulating, some people will want to double-mask for added protection. Send them a pack of 20 or whatever and they can layer a surgical mask with a cloth mask for extra filtering. How many marginal infections would that prevent? No way to know, but every infection that doesn’t happen is an entire chain of transmission that’s severed. Which will be important as the variants get a foothold and start propagating.

Exit quotation from CDC chief Rochelle Walensky, a skeptic of the mask-mailing plan: “It’s not entirely clear to me that the reason people aren’t wearing masks is because they don’t have access to them.” Yeah, unquestionably, many of these masks would go unused. There’ll be entire YouTube genres devoted to MAGA fans burning their “Biden masks” for freedom or whatever.