N95 masks in demand during omicron surge; distribution happening in Milwaukee, Madison

Milwaukee gives away 500K masks in 3 days, Dane County to distribute masks to public, schools

A driver wearing a face mask sits in a car as a woman delivers a bag of masks to him.
Dane County residents receive masks distributed by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Fitchburg, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

As hospitalizations peak in Wisconsin and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers changing its mask guidance to better protect against the rapidly spreading omicron variant, some communities are seeing a surge in demand for N95 masks.

After handing out a half million of the high-filtration masks in less than three days, the Milwaukee Health Department resumed distribution Thursday at health centers and libraries. Each car received a pack of 20 N95 masks, according to city health officials.

In Madison, the local health department announced Thursday that N95 masks would soon be available to schools and the public to supplement efforts already underway.

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A woman carries white plastic bags of supplies to a car in a drive thru line.
Jacquelyn Hunt with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County hands out masks Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Fitchburg, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

As has been widely reported, the CDC is weighing changes urging people use the highly protective N95 or KN95 masks worn by health care personnel — if they can do so consistently. What the person wearing the mask will tolerate is a concern, especially in the classroom.

In Madison, school officials are keeping an eye on federal guidance.

“The best mask is one that students will wear,” said Madison Metropolitan School District spokesperson Tim LeMonds.

The district provides surgical masks at all of its schools to students and staff who need one.

Schools have access to a state stockpile of N95 masks. Milwaukee Public Schools recently received 100,000 masks ahead of the return to the classroom Tuesday after temporarily going virtual after winter break.

Drivers in cars wait in a line to get masks.
Masks are distributed to people by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Fitchburg, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Dane County expects to give out 200,000 masks initially. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County received the same number of masks from the state and started distributing them Wednesday, giving out 10 masks per adult. On the second day masks were given away, there was a long line of cars which prompted to Boys & Girls Clubs director to apologize for potential traffic snarls.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a plan to get more high-quality masks and rapid at-home tests to the public. Gov. Tony Evers said that as of Saturday, all health plans will be required to cover the cost of over-the-counter at-home diagnostic COVID-19 tests for their members. This will apply to both private health insurance companies and group health plans, like those provided by an employer.

The demand for masking and testing comes as Wisconsin reported a record 13,004 new COVID-19 infections Thursday. This surge is putting what state health officials described as “tremendous” pressure on the health care system.

“Each one of us needs to actively work to avoid unnecessary exposure to COVID-19 in our own lives,” Timberlake said during a media briefing Thursday, urging people to get vaccinated and boosted, along with taking other measures like staying home when sick.

This week, hospitals had more patients with COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic, and Evers called up the National Guard to help ease the pressure on hospitals and nursing homes. About 50 Guard members have been deployed to six nursing homes in Wisconsin to care for residents and patients waiting to be released from hospitals to long-term care facilities.

Additional Guard members will get trained as certified nursing assistants which will allow nursing homes to open up 200 beds by the end of February.