How the costs of masks and tests contribute to wealth inequality

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION seeks solutions to ongoing inequality exacerbated by COVID costs. Modern Healthcare

Daniella Flores | Writer

January 21, 2022

As the omicron variant has spread like wildfire throughout the United States in the past few weeks, many Americans find themselves struggling financially. 

THE WORST AND BEST MASKS as shown from left to right. Alex Dos Diaz/Verywell

With COVID-19 cases climbing at alarming rates, health experts have urged the public to switch from cloth masks to those of higher quality, such as N-95, and to test more frequently in order to prevent further spread of the disease. 

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines for masks to establish that N-95 or KN-95 masks offer the “highest level of protection” against the virus. 

For some, the added cost is an irritation, but still affordable. To others, paying for a single disposable mask or test kit is economically impossible. 

With nearly three-quarters of American workers struggling to make ends meet, many workers also do not get paid sick leave (around 40% in service and construction jobs) and have continued to work because they cannot afford to miss a paycheck.

Several workers and officials have expressed their frustration that the state and federal governments have not acted quickly enough during the current surge in COVID-19 cases. Despite legislation on January 14 that made testing free or able to be reimbursed by insurance companies, Americans who do not have health care coverage struggle to afford frequent Covid tests for work. 

“It is shocking that [the lack of proper COVID precautions] isn’t a problem that is publicized as much in the news, because if it was handled and everyone wore the safest masks or got tested more, I am sure COVID cases would drop significantly,” junior Kayla Shanafelt said. “I think that by solving this problem, we could hopefully start returning to normal activities again.” 

In various states, groups have been formed in order to raise money for those who cannot afford test kids and masks. Many of the founders of these groups have poured their own money into the effort, saying that they “couldn’t ignore that testing had become inaccessible to those without financial means.” 

Consumers in other countries offer much more affordable or even free test kit options. In both India and Germany, tests can be bought for as low as a few dollars, and the United Kingdom has been mailing rapid tests to residents who request them since early January. 

American public health scientist Feigl-Ding said that the available supply in the United States is far too low for the demand. 

N-95 MASKS have a denser network of fibers compared to cloth or surgical masks. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The White House announced that soon private health insurance companies would be required to reimburse up to eight at-home COVID-19 tests a month. 

On Wednesday, the Biden administration made up to four tests available to Americans via an online government website. And starting next week, the administration plans to distribute 400 million high-quality N-95 masks for adults, free of charge. Masks will be available for pickup at tens of thousands of pharmacies and federal community centers. 

“Although I wish that the administration would have recognized the problem sooner, I am glad they are finally doing something about it,” junior Raina Provencio said. “I also wish that they recognized how big of a problem masks are within schools because a lot of my teachers have to buy masks themselves.”

This distribution will be the largest deployment of personal protective equipment (PPE) in U.S. history. The masks will come from the government’s Strategic National Stockpile, which currently has over 750 million N-95 masks. 

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