January 25, 2022
The Biden administration is working to make free N95 face masks available to U.S. residents as part of its push to curb transmission of the omicron variant.
The N95 mask provides the best COVID-19 protection of any readily available disposable mask, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest guidance.
The federal government's move to distribute 400 million N95 masks comes as the CDC urges people to ditch reusable cloths masks because they are less effective at stemming transmission.
The free masks make up more than half of the 750 million masks currently available in the federal government's Strategic National Stockpile.
The Biden administration said it would provide free masks after rolling out it an initiative to provide U.S. households with free rapid COVID-19 tests through the U.S. Postal Service.
Up to three masks are available to every person in the U.S., according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The masks are being shipped to community health centers and pharmacies where residents can pick them up for free.
Each of the national chains that worked with the federal government to administer COVID-19 vaccines are participating in the program including Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, Rite Aid, Kroger and Costco.
A few locations have already received their shipments, but the rest of the masks are expected to be distributed to locations by early February. Residents are encouraged to call nearby pharmacies and health centers to see whether they've received a shipment yet.
All masks provide some level of protection, according to the CDC's latest guidance, but "properly fitted respirators" like the N95 "provide the highest level of protection."
N95s get their name from their ability to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles.
Cloth masks, which were encouraged early in the pandemic as the government was stockpiling disposable masks for health care workers, have been deemed less effective at preventing the spread of the omicron variant. Cloth masks can block exhaled viral particles from spreading to others, but they are not as effective at preventing people from inhaling in viral loads.
N95s also are considered superior to disposable surgical masks because they have a tighter fit.
Public health officials say that KN95 and KF94 masks, the Chinese and South Korean versions of the N95, offer similar protection.
Only adult-sized masks are available through this program because N95s were designed for adults working in medical and industrial settings.
The Biden administration is currently working to procure masks specifically for children, according to Politico.
CDC guidelines advise people that N95s only should be used five times. But there are ways to get the most out of each mask's lifespan.
The masks can be worn for five, eight-hour days, which adds up to 40 hours, Anne Miller, the spokesperson for the nonprofit Project N95, told NPR. So when people spend 30 minutes at the grocery store, they can take that time off their masks' 40-hour lifespans.
Public health professionals, including experts from the CDC, also recommend using the brown bag decontamination method. A mask can be left in a breathable bag for a week. After that, it can be reused because the viral particles will have died.
Still, people are advised to use their best judgment. Any masks that appear dirty or have lost their tight fit should be discarded.
People looking to buy their own N95s need to be careful to avoid counterfeit masks, which don't provide the same level of protection.
The CDC has provided a guide for identifying counterfeit N95s, but it's also easy to check if your mask is real online. All real N95s are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The agency has a searchable, certified equipment list.
Certified N95s will have a testing and certification number on the front of the mask. It will be a few digits following the letters "TC." That number can be entered into NIOSH's database. If it doesn't show up, it's not a certified N95 mask.