Jan 20, 2022 - Podcasts

What's behind Biden’s plan for free N95 masks

The Biden administration announced yesterday it will distribute 400 million free N95 masks to the public, starting next week. They’ll be available at pharmacies and community health centers. Officials say it’s the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.

  • Plus, IRS chaos makes for a messy tax season.
  • And, looming antitrust scrutiny for Microsoft.

Guests: Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician, former Baltimore health commissioner, and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University; and Axios' Emily Peck and Ina Fried.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Erica Pandey, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Sabeena Singhani and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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ERICA PANDEY: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, January 20th. I’m Erica Pandey, in for Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: IRS chaos makes for a messy tax season. Plus, Microsoft back in the antitrust spotlight.

But first, President Biden’s plan for free masks… is today’s One Big Thing.

Starting next week, the federal government will distribute 400 million free N-95 masks to the public. The mask will be available at pharmacies and community health centers. The White House is calling this the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in US history. By the numbers, that's just over one mask per person. Why N-95s? And why now? And are there even enough masks to go around? To answer these and other questions we called on public health expert in emergency physician, Dr. Leana Wen. Hi, Dr. Wen.

LEANA WEN: Hi, great to join you.

ERICA: So why is the Biden administration sending out N-95 masks specifically?

DR. WEN: At this point in the pandemic, we really should be using the highest quality mask that we're able to consistently wear. And the highest quality mask when it comes to protecting against respiratory infections in particular, something as infectious and highly contagious as the Omnicon variant, is the respirator masks. So that's the N-95 mask, which is the American standard. You also have fairly equivalent masks called the KN-95 or the KF-94. Now these are going to be better at protecting against Omicron and other COVID variants than the surgical masks. Surgical masks will be generally better than the single layer cloth mask.

I remember a patient of mine who has been so careful about even avoiding seeing her grandchildren because her grandkids are in daycare and she has not been going to her senior center in her gym, things that she found to be really important. But she walked into clinic with a one layer of cloth mask. And that's because nobody had said to her before that you really need to be upgrading your mask to be wearing a least a surgical mask and a cloth mask, or ideally this K-95 and N-95 KF-94. That's why I think the Biden administration’s now saying they're going to be distributed N-95s is so important because it's finally recognizing that we have to be upgrading our masks and that mask quality really matters.

ERICA: So that leads me to my next question for you. I mean, why send these masks now? Is it sort of like a better late than never situation?

DR. WEN: Yeah, I definitely think it's better late than never. I mean, I wish that this happened a month ago, three months ago, a year ago even. But at the same time, I do think that it's sending the message that these are the standard of respiratory protection that we need for this respiratory virus, which I think is an important message.

But, I do think that this brings up a bigger question about the Biden administration. So much of what they've been doing is reacting to the situation rather than being proactive. Had they done it before the Omicron surge before the Delta surge one does wonder what could have been different in terms of perhaps flattening those curves and not having so much infection as we did all at once.

ERICA: And what about that 400 million number? I mean, that's sort of roughly one mask per person that won't last forever. Will they be doing another shipment?

DR. WEN: At this point, I think a lot of people have the mask that they are very comfortable with. Many people have their own supply of K-95, et cetera. And so I think this is actually different from the issue of testing, which is that there are a lot of people who are unable to get any tests at all. And so having the federal government ship

tests to them directly helps with that supply issue. We don't have a supply issue about masks. So I think it's more of the signal that this is sending.

ERICA: Dr. Leana Wen is a former Baltimore health commissioner and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University.

ERICA: In 15 seconds: why the IRS is in trouble ahead of tax season

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ERICA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Erica Pandey, filling in for Niala Boodhoo. Tax season is right around the corner, and the IRS is in crisis. The agency is still relying on software made more than 60 years ago, and it’s still sifting through some of last year's filings, with 160 million more expected to come through this year. Axios’ markets correspondent, Emily Peck, spoke to treasury officials and an IRS revenue agent just ahead of everyone's favorite time of year. So Emily, what are your sources telling you about what's going on inside the IRS?

EMILY PECK: Okay so Erica, one source actually said the phrase “death spiral” when talking about the coming tax filing season. Things are pretty bad. Going into the pandemic, the IRS was already short staffed and underfunded. The pandemic, like it did to most things, made things worse at the IRS. So it's like kind of a perfect storm of crisis.

ERICA: Haven't we been hearing about a crisis within the IRS for years?

EMILY: Yeah, you hear about this all the time. And it just keeps getting worse. Miraculously, though, most people get their refunds, it's sort of like a little miracle that happens every year.

ERICA: So within all of these issues that the IRS is dealing with right now where are officials looking for hope?

EMILY: They're looking for hope through the Biden administration, from The White House and Build Back Better, which has about $80 billion allocated for the IRS. But hopes are diminishing for that. And then also in The White House's budget, if that ever gets passed, there's also a 14% funding increase for the IRS. So they're kind of pinning their hopes on that. And a treasury official told me that they're kind of prepping their HR resources if they need to staff up and train people.

ERICA: How can I try to avoid headaches while I'm filing this year?

EMILY: Erica. First of all, file electronically with direct deposit, like please for the love of all, do not file a paper tax return, like really don't. And I mean, experts told me to not make mistakes on your tax return. So, take that with a grain of salt. Um, a lot of people, a lot of parents, myself included, got checks this year. And the IRS has sent out information about that money that says specifically how much money you received. You'll need that. So if you got something in the mail from the IRS, fish it out of your recycling bin and make sure you have it on hand when you file.

ERICA: Emily Peck is a markets correspondent for Axios. Thanks, Emily.

EMILY: Thanks, bye!

ERICA: This week, Microsoft announced a $68.7 billion deal to buy the video game company, Activision Blizzard. And Axios’ chief technology correspondent, Ina Fried writes that the surprise deal’s putting the antitrust spotlight back on Microsoft. So Ina, let's start with the basics of this deal. What do we need to know?

INA FRIED: First things you should know is this was a company that was under scrutiny, in terms of Activision Blizzard, for a bunch of harassment allegations. So they were probably looking for some sort of exit way out of this and Microsoft came calling. Microsoft has a really strong franchise in gaming, both XBox as well as a more nascent subscription service and a cloud gaming service. So for Microsoft, I think it was an opportunity that they maybe hadn't been expecting, but certainly wanted to take advantage of. The big question now is whether regulators will approve the deal.

ERICA: Right, I mean, when it comes to this more recent regulatory scrutiny on the tech giants, Microsoft has kind of been sitting in the background, right? How does this move change that?

INA: Yeah, especially in the U.S. I mean, there've been some complaints in Europe about Microsoft bundling in Teams, but you're right, most of the energy, especially in the U.S. has been focused on Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon. And Microsoft had largely been the reform tech giant, you know, obviously the target of the original antitrust case in tech, but not recently. So this certainly will get more attention on them, but I think you will see Microsoft look to make the case that this is them adding more competition to the market to those other names I mentioned and I think there's a chance that argument will fly with regulators.

ERICA: Are they prepared to fight back on any antitrust case?

INA: You know, I think certainly you don't go into a deal like this company with the size and market power of Microsoft and not expect a hard look. It's always a question mark of how far do companies go to fight this? If the DOJ or FTC sued to block it, would they keep going or would they give up? You know, Microsoft feels like it has a good case and is prepared for what may well be a long fight. They're expecting the deal won't close till next year at the earliest.

ERICA: Ina Fried writes the daily Login newsletter. Thanks, Ina.

INA: Thanks Erica.

ERICA: That’s all we’ve got for you today!

I’m Erica Pandey in for Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening and stay safe. We’ll see you tomorrow morning.

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