In an effort to curb the omicron COVID variant, which continues to actively spread nationwide, the Biden administration will make 400 million N95 masks available for free to U.S. residents starting next week.
The face coverings will be allocated from the government's Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of the highly protective masks on hand.
Here's what you should know before next week:
Where can you find a free N95 mask?
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Masks will be distributed at health centers and pharmacies enrolled in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, a nationwide program that relies on such entities to help expand COVID-19 vaccine access.
Here's a list of where you'll be able to 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)
- CPESN USA
- Good Neighbor Pharmacy and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation’s pharmacy services administrative organization (PSAO), Elevate Provider Network
- Health Mart Pharmacies
- LeaderNET and The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy, Cardinal Health’s PSAOs
- The Kroger Co. (including Kroger, Mariano’s, Pick-n-Save and other brands under the company)
- Piggy Wiggly
- Walmart (including Sam’s Club)
When will masks be available?
Several stores will begin providing masks next week, according to White House officials, but the program isn't expected to be fully operational until early February.
Officials recommend calling locations to ensure enough masks are in stock.
How many masks can you pick up?
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 being distributed?
Last week, the CDC updated its guidance on face coverings to more clearly state that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the most protection against COVID. Still, it didn't formally recommend N95s over cloth masks.
KN95 masks, as well as N95s, filter out at least 95% of air particles, but N95 masks have stricter pressure drop requirements and are regularly considered the "gold standard" for masking.
Does this mean you should ditch other masks, such as cloth face coverings?
No, Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, stressed that "everybody wearing a mask is the most important thing."
"The biggest jump in protection is from no mask to any mask," she said during a question-and-answer session.
According to an article from Nebraska Medicine, mask materials that have high filtering efficiency in theory work best in combating the omicron surge, but fit is especially important.
Several studies have found that a multi-layer cloth mask can have effective filtration efficiency that is just as high 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 you can that fits 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 of time when needed, it said.