When Can You Get Them and How? What to Know About Free N95 Masks From White House

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Beginning next week, the Biden administration is expected to start making 400 million N95 masks available for free to U.S. residents. But how many can you get and how can you get them?

Here's what we know so far.

Where will you be able to get free masks?

The White House announced Wednesday that the masks will come from the government's Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of the highly protective masks on hand. The masks will be available for pickup at pharmacies and community health centers across the country.

The White House said the masks will be made available at pharmacies and community health centers that have partnered with the federal government's COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

Illinois-based Walgreens said it will be partnering with the administration to "make N95 masks in varying sizes available free of charge at select Walgreens locations nationwide while supplies last."

"We know masks are an effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19. We are currently finalizing the operational details of this program and will provide more information once available," a Walgreens spokesperson said in a statement.

When can you get them?

They will begin shipping this week for distribution starting late next week, the White House said.

How many can you get?

The White House said that “to ensure broad access for all Americans, there will be three masks available per person.”

What kind of masks will you get?

The White House said the masks will be N95 masks. Details were not immediately available on the specifics of the program, including the sort of masks to be provided, whether kid-size ones will be available and whether the masks could be reworn.

Which masks are best against omicron?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated its guidance on face coverings to more clearly state that properly fitted N95 and KN95 masks offer the most protection against COVID-19. Still, it didn't formally recommend N95s over cloth masks.

The best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week.

Previously, the CDC didn't recommend that the general population wear N95 masks or KN95s, a similar type of mask made in China, fearing that demand would impact the supply in health care settings. 

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.

N95 or KN95 masks are more widely available now than at any other time during the pandemic, though they are often more costly than less-protective surgical masks or cloth masks.

Earlier this month, 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.

Arwady at the time said KN95 masks are "good to use" when available, but signified the importance of overall mask use.

"As long as it feels comfortable for you to have one of these on, wear one," she said. "It's got a higher protection level."

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.

The agency did, however, offer a ranking of commonly used face coverings in order of highest to lowest protection, with N95s approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health and KN95s at the top.

Disposable surgical masks were next on the list, however the CDC advised making sure they fit properly. Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, according to agency officials.

Why is this happening now?

Federal officials are emphasizing that N95 masks offer better protection against the omicron variant of COVID-19 over cloth face coverings.

This will be the largest distribution of free masks by the federal government to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In early 2020, then-President Donald Trump's administration considered and then shelved plans to send masks to people at their homes. President Joe Biden embraced the initiative after facing mounting criticism this month over the inaccessibility — both in supply and cost — of N95 masks as the highly transmissible omicron variant swept across the country.

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