WASHINGTON — The White House scrapped an effort to send hundreds of millions of cloth masks to every U.S. household in April, choosing instead to distribute those masks to nonprofits and state and federal agencies, according to an internal email from a senior Trump administration official obtained by NBC News.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services told NBC News 600 million masks have been distributed around the country to nonprofits and state and federal agencies through the means the Trump administration ultimately chose. The mask distribution program was called Project America Strong.
But public health experts say sending masks directly to Americans’ homes in the early days of the global pandemic would have sent a stronger message to Americans encouraging them to use masks.
Dr. Monica Gandhi from the University of California San Francisco told NBC News mailing masks to everyone’s home would have meant, “We are saying, ‘This is so important that we are going to put them in the mail and get them to you.”
Gandhi noted that wearing masks protects the mask-wearers as well as those around them, “It may even decrease the severity of the disease that you get,” she said. “No country but this one has resisted masking.” She cited the rate of infection in Taiwan, where masks were immediately encouraged and distributed en masse throughout the country. As of June the country had just seven deaths from COVID-19, according to a Taiwanese health study.
The internal HHS email from June obtained by NBC News was sent in response to an inquiry from a non-governmental entity asking why the Trump administration did not move forward with sending masks to every American household.
In the email, a senior HHS official says the “White House” made the decision not to move forward with household distribution and instead the face masks would be manufactured and distributed to various businesses, state and federal agencies as well as to non-profit organizations.
NBC News asked an HHS spokesperson why the White House scrapped household distribution but HHS did not respond to the question, saying instead, “Cloth face masks are now widely available from a number of vendors and easily accessible to the American public. Additionally, many people are now making their own.”
The White House did not respond on the record to a request for comment.
The decision not to move forward with household distribution was first reported by The Washington Post in a story that cited a draft press release about the program obtained through a U.S. Postal Service Freedom of Information Act request by the watchdog group American Oversight.
The document shows the USPS was poised to distribute the masks to every American household. The release says the masks would first be distributed to homes in geographic areas with high numbers of cases at the time, including parishes in Louisiana as well as “King County, Washington, Wayne County, Michigan and New York.”
The draft press release was part of a tranche of 10,000 documents released by the USPS in response to American Oversight’s FOIA request. On Thursday, USPS said the documents were improperly released and asked American Oversight to take them down. American Oversight took down some of the documents, saying it had agreed to remove them for “24 hours as we wait for USPS to specify which pages it believes should continue to be withheld.” It left other excerpts published.
HHS signed contracts with a group of textile manufacturers in early May for $640 million to make masks under Project America Strong, according to federal purchase records. The largest contract went to Hanes, which made 450 million masks between May and July, according to a company press release. Hanes did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
As part of the effort to distribute the masks under Project America Strong, HHS set up a website where Americans could request a box of 500 masks each.
But by July, an HHS spokesperson said the agency had run out of masks and the website’s language was changed to say, “The demand for the face coverings has exceeded supply. As a result, we are no longer accepting new requests.”