In an effort to curb the omicron variant COVID, which continues to actively spread nationwide, the Biden administration will make 400 million N95 masks freely available to US residents starting next week.
Face coverings will be allocated from the government’s strategic national stockpile, which has more than 750 million highly protective masks.
Here’s what you need to know before next week:
Where can I find a free N95 mask?
Masks will be distributed at health centers and pharmacies enrolled in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, a national program that relies on these entities to help expand access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
Here is a list of places where you can find a free N95 mask in Illinois, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Albertsons companies (including Osco, Jewel-Osco and other subsidiaries)
- CPSN United States
- Good Neighbor Pharmacy and the Pharmacy Services Administrative Organization (PSAO) of AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, Elevate Provider Network
- Pharmacies Health Mart
- Hy Vee
- LeaderNET and The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy, PSAO of Cardinal Health
- The Kroger Co. (including Kroger, Mariano’s, Pick-n-Save and other company brands)
- Piggy Wiggly
- Walmart (including Sam’s Club)
To find a health center near you, click here. A full list of participating pharmacies and retailers is available here.
When will the masks be available?
Several stores will begin supplying masks next week, White House officials say, but the program isn’t expected to be fully operational until early February.
Officials recommend calling locations to ensure there are enough masks in stock.
How many masks can you collect?
Each resident will be limited to three masks per person to ensure broad access to the program, a White House official said.
Why are N95 masks distributed?
Last week, the CDC updated its face covering guidelines to more clearly state that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the best protection against COVID. Still, he did not formally recommend N95s over cloth masks.
KN95 masks, along with N95s, filter at least 95% of air particles, but N95 masks have more stringent pressure drop requirements and are regularly considered the “gold standard” for masking.
Does that mean you should ditch other masks, such as cloth face coverings?
No, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, stressed that “everyone wearing a mask is the most important thing.”
“The biggest leap in protection is going from no mask to any mask,” she said during a Q&A.
According to an article in Nebraska Medicine, mask materials that theoretically have high filtering efficiency work best to combat omicron push, but fit is especially important.
Several studies have shown that a multi-layer fabric mask can have just as high effective filtration efficiency as KN95s or other high filtration masks, according to the article.
The CDC said in its updated guidance that it “continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask possible that fits you well and that you will wear consistently.”
A mask should fit close to the face without any gaps and be comfortable enough to wear for long periods when needed, he said.