The Biden administration's free mask program is officially underway, with plans to hand out 400 million N95 masks distributed to pharmacies and community health centers throughout the US. The initiative comes as the Omicron variant is still spreading across the country—a crucial time to stock up on the proper masks for public indoor environments. Below, we break down where and when you can pick up free masks, how many are allotted per person, and more.
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Where Can You Find Free N95 Masks?
Unlike the free at-home Covid-19 rapid tests, you cannot order free N95 masks online. You'll have to pick them up in person at a local pharmacy or community health center.
Up to three N95 masks will be available per person. Most locations will be distributing masks as stock comes in. They'll be available on a first-come-first-serve basis. You also won't be required to show proof of identification to receive your set of masks.
The program officially started at the end of January, but many locations should receive masks in February. Regardless, you may want to call your local retailer before making the trip. You should also ask a sales associate in-store since some locations may keep stock behind the register. Some locations may also have signage on the status of mask availability.
These retailers and pharmacies have free N95 masks (check your US state):
Health centers supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) will also receive N95 masks. According to the HRSA, the first phase of the program will distribute masks to about 100 to 200 health centers across the country. It plans to expand the program to more health centers in the coming weeks. You can check here for a list of health centers that are part of the first phase of the program.
Wait, What Is an N95 Mask?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “well-fitting [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health]-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection.” Also known as specialized filtering masks, N95s have the ability to filter out 95 percent of airborne particles—including Covid-19—when worn properly. And since most data suggests the Omicron variant is more contagious than the original SARS-CoV-2 variant, a lot of health experts don't recommend using cloth masks, making an N95 mask a great replacement.
With hundreds of millions of these masks being pulled from the Strategic National Stockpile, the specific type of N95 will vary depending on location. You can see the list of free N95 respirator manufacturers and access manufacturer instructions for the specific masks you receive via the CDC's site.
The specific size options for free N95s will also vary by location. To ensure that it fits correctly, the mask should feel snug—forming a tight seal to your face without any gaps. You can check for gaps by placing your hands on the N95 and breathing out. If you feel air coming from the edges of the mask, then you'll have to either adjust it or try another size.
You can wear these masks multiple times, but replace your mask when the straps are stretched out (and no longer fit snugly), it can no longer hold its shape, it gets dirty, or it is hard to breathe through. It needs to form a seal around your face and must be dry when you put it on. You cannot wash an N95 or sterilize it using the oven or microwave.
If you want to purchase additional N95 masks to keep on hand, you can check out the guide to our favorite N95s, KN95s, and other surgical masks. Here are a few N95 masks that we recommend:
For more options, you can also take a look at the CDC's list of NIOSH-approved N95s.
Don't Forget About Vaccinations and Boosters
While masks have proven to help slow the spread of Covid-19, getting vaccinated is also important. It doesn't fully prevent you from contracting the virus, but it can help reduce symptoms. If you've already received both doses, make sure you get that booster shot too. You can easily find a Covid-19 vaccine location near you using Vaccines.gov.