After the U.S. confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus, it took four months to reach 100,000 deaths. Last week, the death toll hit 400,000, just five weeks after we lost the 300,000th American to the virus. By the end of February, another 100,000 will likely be dead.

It’s too sad to think about all the lives that could have been saved had more Americans dedicated themselves to wearing a mask whenever they came in contact with someone outside their household.

So instead, we should look at it differently. Instead, let’s think about all the pain and suffering that could be avoided over the next several months if everyone pledges to wear a mask when appropriate.

Imagine how much easier that would be if a package of high-quality masks was sent to every household.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, many health authorities warned people not to use masks, as they were concerned about maintaining scarce supplies for the health care system.

But cloth masks, homemade and mass produced, soon became available. Paper-like surgical masks are now widely available as well.


Now when people choose to wear a mask, they generally choose one of those options, both of which cut down on the wearer’s ability to spread virus droplets, and offer the wearer themselves some degree of protection.

However, the widespread use of cloth masks, particularly homemade ones, should only have been temporary, a makeshift solution necessary only until higher-quality masks were mass produced.

The medical-grade N95 and KN95 masks, also known as respirators, reduce transmissibility even more than cloth and surgical masks. They protect the user far more as well.

Few people have gotten the message. KN95 masks are now available widely in stores, though they often stay on the shelf as people continue to use the lesser masks.

But some of those masks come through dubious supply chains. When tested, many of them come up short.

The N95, when available, is superior, and its quality reliable.


But the U.S. entered the pandemic without an emergency supply of N95 respirators, and production has never been able to meet demand. Still, health care workers find themselves short of this critical equipment, using respirators for days that are designed to be thrown away regularly.

President Joe Biden can take steps to fix this now.

Biden last week gave government agencies the OK to use the Defense Production Act to direct private industry to produce supplies needed in a national emergency.

The Trump administration used the DPA to increase production of ventilators to fill a shortage earlier in the pandemic, but did not do the same for masks.

Biden should direct his administration to increase N95 production. The federal government, too, should make sure that people can trust the KN95 masks that are coming into the country.

High-quality masks could be made available to every resident, as other countries have done, and as a group of doctors at a Boston hospital are now suggesting.

Then every effort should be made to let people know they should all wear a mask when appropriate, and that a cloth mask is OK but a respirator is better.

Then we hope it works. It’s no exaggeration to say tens of thousands of lives depend on it.

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