Credit…Pool photo by Ting Shen/EPA, via Shutterstock

The White House said Wednesday it is considering a program to provide “high-quality” face masks to Americans as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads across the country.

“We are currently in the process of seriously considering the options,” Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator, told reporters during a regular pandemic press briefing. He did not provide any details on the type of masks that could be distributed, how many or when.

The White House has yet to decide what the program will look like, according to people familiar with the discussions. One option would be to make the masks available at community sites, said a person familiar with the planning.

With virus cases and hospitalizations soaring across the country, the White House is under pressure to reassure Americans that it is doing everything it can to combat the Omicron variant. More than 140,000 people have been hospitalized with the virus on average over the past week, federal data showed on Tuesday, a record number that topped last winter’s peak.

Hospitalization totals include people who test positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19. Public health experts say the number is large and accidental infections can still be troublesome, but there are no national data on this.

In a candid statement during a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said most Americans will be infected with the virus – a prediction that experts outside the health echoed. “What we need to do is make sure hospitals can still operate, transportation, you know, other essential services aren’t interrupted while this is happening,” she added.

Asked about his comments during Wednesday’s briefing, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony S. Fauci said Dr. Woodcock meant “virtually everyone” will likely be infected eventually. But he said: “If you’re vaccinated and if you’re boosted, the chances of you getting sick are very, very low.”

“We’re not going to eliminate that,” he said, adding, “but we’ll get it under control eventually.”

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited health care data from Southern California indicating that people infected with the Omicron variant were much less likely to become seriously ill or die compared to those infected by its predecessor, the Delta variant. She cited a 53% lower risk of hospitalization with symptoms, a 74% lower risk of ICU admission and a 91% lower risk of death.

The average number of new deaths on Tuesday rose to more than 1,700 a day, a 40% increase over the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database. With Omicron now accounting for about nine out of ten known virus infections, Dr Walensky said: “I suspect the deaths we’re seeing now are still coming from Delta.” Deaths are a lagging indicator of infections, and she said data over the next two weeks is needed to assess Omicron’s impact on death rates.

Mr Zients said the government had a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks – considered the highest quality – for healthcare and emergency workers.

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, told senators on Tuesday that additional contracts for N95 masks could be finalized by February. The government is asking would-be contractors to manufacture 141 million masks each month at “peak capacity”, she said.

On Wednesday, Dr. Walensky said the CDC was working to update its mask guidelines to address the differences in protection between different types. The agency continues to emphasize that people should wear a mask that fits them well, she said, adding, “The best mask for you is one that you can wear comfortably.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said Wednesday he was reintroducing legislation co-sponsored by dozens of Democratic lawmakers that would offer everyone in the United States a three-pack of N95 masks.

Dr Luciana Borio, a former adviser to President Biden during the transition who called for a revamped pandemic strategy, said a high-quality mask distribution program would be “better late than never”.

“They can also be used by people who have recovered and come out of isolation and are returning to the workforce,” she said.

Albert Sun contributed report.