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Want A Free N95 Mask? You Can Get One From The Government Soon

Delish logo Delish 1/23/2022 Korin Miller
The U.S. government plans to distribute free N95 masks to Americans that want them within days. © bojanstory - Getty Images The U.S. government plans to distribute free N95 masks to Americans that want them within days.

On Wednesday, the federal government opened up a website offering free COVID-19 test kits to all Americans. Now, the administration plans to distribute free N95 masks as well, following the emergence of the Omicron variant last year.

White House officials revealed in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday that the government will ship N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers at the end of this week, with a plan of making the masks available to the public for free by the end of next week. The program will be full ramped up by early February and the plan is to distribute 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks.

The masks come from the Strategic National Stockpile, which is the country’s emergency reserve. According to NBC News, there will be three masks distributed per person.

The news comes on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tweaking guidance on masking for Americans. Under the updated guidance, the CDC now says that N95 masks may be worn by the general public if people wish to wear them. Previously, the CDC recommended that N95 masks be reserved for healthcare workers due to supply chain issues.

Here’s what you need to know about N95 respirators, plus how to get your free masks.

What are N95 masks again?

N95 masks, also known as N95 respirators, are considered the best face masks you can get to help protect against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, explains Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. These masks filter out at least 95% of aerosols, according to the CDC.

It’s important to point out that there’s a subtype of N95 masks labeled as “surgical” N95 respirators. These masks provide extra protection against hazards that healthcare workers may face during medical procedures like blood splatter, and should still be reserved for healthcare workers, per the CDC.

The CDC specifically notes that well-fitting respirators like N95s “offer the highest level of protection,” adding, “a respirator has better filtration, and if worn properly the whole time it is in use, can provide a higher level of protection than a cloth or procedural mask.”

When should you wear an N95 mask?

The CDC suggests wearing an N95 mask under these circumstances:

  • When you take care of someone who is sick with COVID-19.
  • If you’re at an increased risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19
  • When you work at a job where you interact with large numbers of the public (especially when others don’t consistently mask up)
  • When you ride on planes, buses, trains, or other forms of public transportation, especially if you’ll be in crowded spaces for longer periods of time
  • When you can’t physical distance or when you’re in crowded indoor or outdoor public spaces
  • If you haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 or aren’t up to date on your vaccinations

Why is access to free N95 masks important?


Video: The CDC May Soon Tell People To Wear N95 or KN95 Masks Instead of Cloth Masks (Veuer)

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Experts agree that this is an important move by the government. “It’s letting people know that the government is responsive to their needs and is providing something that many people are seeking,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Wearing a good, quality mask is important.”

Even when the pandemic shifts to an endemic stage—which is when there will be baseline levels of COVID-19 around, but it won’t be as disruptive as it is now—it’s still going to be crucial to have high quality masks like N95s available, Dr. Russo says. “Our vulnerable populations are still going to be having bad outcomes if they get COVID-19,” he says. “Masking in certain scenarios, like when you’re caring for someone with the virus, will also be important.”

But Dr. Russo points out that N95 masks aren’t for everyone and even every situation. “N95 masks have rubber straps that go over your head, and some people don’t tolerate that well,” he says. They’re also not usually a type of mask that people feel comfortable wearing for longer periods of time, he says. “You still may want to have it to run into a crowded grocery store, but maybe not for longer use,” Dr. Russo says.

But N95 masks aren’t cheap, and Dr. Russo notes that having these available for free will help expand access to even more people. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford these,” he says.

If more people wear N95 masks “in the appropriate circumstances, it will be another literal barrier to transmission of this virus," Dr. Schaffner says.

“If you do that in addition to vaccination and boosting, it will make a contribution in reducing transmission,” he says.

How to get your free N95 mask from the government

Details are scarce from the government and, it seems, major pharmacy chains haven’t nailed down plans just yet for distributing free masks to the public without people taking advantage of the system.

Spokespeople from both CVS and Walgreens told Prevention that additional details will be shared as they become available.

“Through our continued participation in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, we’ll be offering access to free N95 masks at CVS Pharmacy locations in the coming weeks as we receive supply from the federal government,” a CVS spokesperson told Prevention. “Our work to distribute high-quality masks as part of this program is an extension of our commitment to providing equitable access to the tools necessary to combat COVID-19, including testing, vaccines, and authorized therapies.”

A Walgreens spokesperson told Prevention that the pharmacy chain is “pleased” to partner with the administration “to make N95 masks in varying sizes available free of charge at select Walgreens locations nationwide while supplies last.”

But, they added, “we are currently finalizing the operational details of this program and will provide more information once available."

What is clear, though, is that at some point within the next few weeks, you should be able to walk into your local pharmacy or health center and get three free N95 masks. “This is a great idea,” Dr. Schaffner says.

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