As the government sends free COVID tests to households across the nation, 400 million free masks are also on their way.
Unlike the free testing kits which are ordered through a government website or hotline and shipped by the United States Postal Service, the free N95 masks will be available to pick up at “tens of thousands” of pharmacies and community health centers that have partnered with the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
While the White House said the masks would be available for distribution starting this week, specific dates for all stores and locations are not yet available.
White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday it was the “largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history.”
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“We’ve already shipped millions of these masks out. And across the coming days, masks will begin to be available at local pharmacies and community health centers across the country,” Zients said.
Mask distribution has already started at Meijer and Hy-Vee stores and is expected at Walgreens later in the week.
The masks will come from the country’s Strategic National Stockpile, which has tripled its supply of N95 masks to 750 million in the year since Biden took office. The White House has faced increasing pressure to make more protective masks available to the public rather than less protective cloth versions.
The free masks are in addition to 30 million masks the Biden administration distributed to food banks and community health centers last year and 23.5 million masks and respirators sent to states. On his first day in office, Biden took action to require masks be worn in federal buildings, airplanes and trains, and he’s called on Americans to continue wearing masks in all public indoor settings.
Individuals will be limited to three masks per person to ensure broad access to the program, according to Kevin Munoz, assistant White House press secretary.
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Retail pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program vary by state and territory, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, which also lists a state-by-state breakdown. Here is the full national list.
Through the Health Resources & Services Administration Health Center COVID-19 N95 Mask Program, eligible health centers can opt to participate to distribute free masks to patients and people in their communities. The program is voluntary.
Approximately 100 to 200 health centers (listed on the hyperlink) are included in the initial phase and “should receive and start distributing masks before the end of January 2022.” The program is expected to be expanded in the coming weeks.
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CVS told USA TODAY on Wednesday that free N95 masks are expected to begin to arrive at CVS Pharmacy stores and its pharmacies inside Target and Schnuck’s stores “as early as Thursday and will continue on a rolling basis as additional supply becomes available.”
In a statement , CVS said that “signs will be posted to indicate N95 mask availability.”
Walgreens said it will have N95 masks in varying sizes available at participating locations, while supplies last. There will be a maximum of three masks per person.
“We expect the first stores to begin offering masks on Friday, January 28 and will continue on a rolling basis in the days and weeks following,” Walgreens said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Participating stores will have signage indicating mask availability.”
“We anticipate the free N95 masks will be available in some stores beginning late this week with all stores receiving them by early February,” Rite Aid said in a statement to USA TODAY Thursday. “Customers will be able to pick up the masks, with a limit of 3 masks per person, at an in-store display or the pharmacy counter while supplies last.”
Walmart said in a statement to USA TODAY Tuesday that the company anticipates “masks will be available by the second week of February at the front of more than 5,100 Walmart stores and Sam’s Clubs across the country.”
The masks will be available, while supplies last, and will be limited to three masks per person.
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Christina Gayman, a spokesperson for Hy-Vee, said in a statement to USA TODAY that the company began receiving and distributing its first shipments of N95 masks on Jan. 21.
“At this time, many Hy-Vee pharmacy locations have received and are distributing their mask allocations,” Gayman said Tuesday. “All 275 Hy-Vee pharmacies in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin will have masks by tomorrow (Wednesday).”
Meijer, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based retailer with more than 258 supercenters and grocery stores throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin, said in a statement that it has received approximately 3 million masks from the government.
The N95 masks will be in boxes on a table near the grocery entrance and greeter stand. A Meijer greeter, who will be wearing gloves, will arrange the masks in piles of three for customers to take.
Albertsons Companies operates stores across 34 states and the District of Columbia with banners including Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Acme, Tom Thumb, Randalls, United Supermarkets, Pavilions, Star Market, Haggen, Carrs, Kings Food Markets and Balducci’s Food Lovers Market.
In a statement to USA TODAY, the company confirmed it was “participating in the federal government’s initiative to distribute free non-surgical N95 masks nationwide in the coming weeks. We are currently working to finalize details regarding inventory and distribution.”
Kroger stores with pharmacies will distribute the free masks, the company told USA TODAY. More information is expected soon. The grocer operates several regional supermarket chains in 35 states, including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Ralphs, Mariano’s, Fry’s, Smith’s, King Soopers, QFC and others.
Southeastern Grocers said it plans to distribute more than 2 million N95 masks in all of its in-store pharmacies, which include Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie pharmacies. The masks will begin arriving in the grocer’s pharmacy locations as early as Friday and “will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis,” the company said in a statement.
The CDC updated its mask information Jan. 14 to acknowledge some types of masks provide more protection than others.
The agency also recognized that some types of masks may be harder to wear consistently than others and that it is important to choose a mask that is comfortable and provides good protection. It also removed concerns related to supply shortages.
“Masking is a critical public health tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask,” the CDC said in a statement. “To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”
The updated guidelines come as many experts advocate for increasing mask protection amid growing evidence that common cloth masks are not protective enough against the latest variants of the virus.
This story will be updated when more information is available.
Contributing: Joey Garrison, Christine Fernando and Ryan W. Miller, USA TODAY
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