The United States Postal Service drafted plans to distribute 650 million reusable cotton face masks to Americans last spring -- five to every household -- as the country grappled with the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak, according to USPS internal documents obtained by a watchdog group.
The draft was among nearly 10,000 pages of USPS documents turned over to American Oversight in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails, memos and legal correspondence released illustrate how the agency struggled to address the pandemic in its earliest weeks, as front-line postal workers feared for their safety and executives worried about disruptions to the agency's service and funding.
According to the draft release, the agency, working with the Department of Health and Human Services, would first send masks to areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates at the time -- including Louisiana's Orleans and Jefferson parishes; King County, Washington; New York; and Wayne County, Michigan.
"Our organization is uniquely suited to undertake this historic mission of delivering face coverings to every American household in the fight against the COVID-19 virus," the then-postmaster general and CEO, Megan J. Brennan, said in the prepared release.
The White House declined to comment on the draft proposal, referring questions to the Department of Health and Human Services.
An HHS spokesperson said roughly 600 million of the total 650 million masks have been delivered under Project America Strong as "part of a multi-prong approach to re-opening the American economy while limiting the spread of COVID-19."
A spokesman for the Postal Service did not respond to a message seeking comment.
"There was concern from some in the White House Domestic Policy Council and the office of the vice president that households receiving masks might create concern or panic," one administration official told The Washington Post about the proposal.
Instead, the initiative, announced by the Trump administration under the "Project: America Strong," was a more targeted program to send face masks to critical infrastructure sectors, companies and health care, community and religious organizations.
The program is no longer accepting new requests for face masks, according to its website, and instead encourages applicants to purchase face masks elsewhere or make their own.
President Donald Trump said on Aug. 12 that the government would also send 120 million face masks to schools ahead of the fall.
"The Postal Service connects every single person in American, and the president could have used it for public health, but he didn't," Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight, told ABC News, calling out Trump. "An opportunity to deliver science-based public health tools to every person in the country was lost."
"Giving out masks to everyone doesn't mean that people will necessarily wear them, but it does send a strong message that mask wearing is a public health imperative," Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former health commissioner of Baltimore, told ABC News.
Trump has been criticized by public health experts for failing to aggressively promote the widespread use of masks across the country to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
While the White House claims Trump supports mask wearing, he initially downplayed needing to wear one himself, and said he couldn't imagine sitting behind the Resolute Desk with a mask on.
He wasn't seen wearing a mask in public until July, when he visited wounded service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and tweeted that wearing a mask was "patriotic."
But he continued sending mixed messages on the subject this week. After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Robert Redfield, told Congress on Wednesday that masks might offer better protection than a vaccine from COVID-19 -- comparing the research about the effectiveness of masks to the unknown efficacy of the vaccines still in development -- Trump told reporters Redfield "made a mistake" with his comments.
"A lot of people think that masks are not good," Trump said in an ABC News town hall with undecided voters on Tuesday.
When pressed on his comments by ABC News' chief anchor, George Stephanopoulos, Trump only said he had heard that from "waiters."
"Our entire response has been hampered by mixed messaging," Wen told ABC News. "At this point, it's way beyond mixed messaging, we're talking about an absolutely disruptive message that goes against public health."
USPS itself has also struggled to keep its workforce healthy. In a video released Thursday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy revealed that more than 11,000 USPS employees have contracted COVID-19 to date -- and 87 of those infected have died.
DeJoy, who took control of the beleaguered agency in June, has come under immense scrutiny in recent months after a set of cost-cutting initiatives slowed mail delivery service during the summer months.
Congressional Democrats have accused DeJoy, who is a longtime Republican donor and Trump ally, of deliberately slowing mail service as part of an effort to undermine absentee voting in the upcoming election. On Thursday, a federal judge in Washington State ordered USPS to halt those measures, reportedly calling the company's actions "a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service" ahead of the November election.