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 the masks to nonprofit organizations 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 that 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.
Public health experts said sending masks directly to Americans' homes in the early days of the global pandemic would have sent a stronger message encouraging Americans to wear masks.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said mailing masks to everyone's homes 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 said 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, Taiwan had just seven deaths from Covid-19, according to a Taiwanese health study.
The Washington Post was the first to report that the Trump administration had once had a plan to send masks directly to U.S. households.
The internal HHS email from June obtained by NBC News was sent in response to an inquiry from a nongovernmental entity asking why the Trump administration did not move forward with the plan.
In the email, a senior HHS official says that the "White House" made the decision not to move forward and that, instead, the masks would be manufactured and distributed to businesses, state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Asked why the White House scrapped household distribution, an HHS spokesperson 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 Post 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 that the Postal Service was poised to distribute the masks to every household. The release says the masks would first be distributed to homes in areas with the 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 among 10,000 documents the Postal Service released in response to the FOIA request. The Postal Service said Thursday that 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 in May and July, according to a company news release. Hanes did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
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."