It has been clear for some time that N95 respirator masks and other high-filtration masks like KN95s and KF94s provide the highest level of protection against the transmission of COVID-19, and that the cloth and surgical masks many Americans wear are inferior. But the government has been slow to act on this information. On Friday, the CDC finally updated its face mask guidance to emphasize the better protection offered by respirators like N95s and KN95s. And this week, the Biden administration unveiled plans to make 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers across the country — an effort the White House is touting as the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history. Here is what we know about the government’s free-mask plan so far.
Where can people pick up their free N95 masks?
The masks will be available at tens of thousands of pharmacies and federal community health centers across the country. Most of the pharmacies that have partnered with the federal government to distribute COVID vaccines will participate in the mask program, according to The Wall Street Journal. Major pharmacy chains CVS, Rite Aid, Stop & Shop, and Walgreens have confirmed that their stores will distribute the free masks. A spokesperson for Stop & Shop noted in a statement to NBC 10 News that initial quantities “will be very limited and will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis.”
While there had been speculation that Americans might be able to request N95s from the same website where they can order free home COVID tests, it appears the masks will only be available for pickup in person.
When will the free masks be available?
The free N95s will be available at some locations starting next week, and the program should be fully up and running by early February.
Of course, if you don’t want to wait you can purchase an N95 or KN95 mask from a reputable seller right now. These masks are widely available, come in a variety of styles, and often cost less than $1.50 each. While some models intended for medical professionals can be cumbersome, there are now plenty of comfortable options on the market. It’s worth finding as style you like, as the new CDC guidance notes, “It is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.”
How many masks will be provided per person?
Three free N95 masks will be available per adult. The government is imposing this limit “to ensure broad access for all Americans,” according to a White House official who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity, ahead of a formal announcement. It’s unclear if the government will track who has picked up their allotment of masks.
Only adult masks will be available when the program starts, but the White House official said, “We anticipate making additional, high-quality masks for children available in the near future,” per the Washington Post.
What kind of masks will the government provide?
The masks will be nonsurgical N95s from the Strategic National Stockpile, but the government has yet to give details on what specific brand or style of N95 will be provided. All N95s are designed to filter out 95 percent of particles and must be approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
How many high-filtration masks does the U.S. government already have?
An official at the Department of Health and Human Services told Congress on January 11 that the U.S. stockpile of medical supplies already contains 737 million N95 respirators — and that the agency is attempting to line up contracts with manufacturers to produce 141 million N95s per month while COVID-19 case numbers remain high. Per the contracts, manufacturers would be able drop production by as much as 30 percent whenever demand dies down.
President Biden said on January 13 that his administration had more than tripled the national stockpile of N95s.
What about the “Masks for All” legislation in Congress?
Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime better-mask advocate, reintroduced the Masks for All Act on January 11. Under the proposed $5 billion bill (which was originally introduced in July 2020 and currently has 15 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 30 co-sponsors in the House), everyone in the U.S. would receive a package of three N95s for free. The legislation would also require the federal government to “use all available authorities,” including the Defense Production Act, to eliminate shortages of N95s, provide them in a range of sizes, and make sure they are rapidly and widely distributed to the public and essential workers. Masks would be made available at various community institutions like post offices, pharmacies, public transit stations, and schools.
The bill’s prospects in Congress remain unclear.
Why has it taken so long for the U.S. government to start providing free high-filtration face masks?
That’s a good question, but better late than never — particularly since providing N95 or other better masks for free to the public will help Americans be prepared for future COVID waves, or COVID variants that might be more transmissible. High-filtration respirators can also be used to protect against other airborne health hazards, like wildfire smoke.