Nearly a week after the Biden administration announced it will deploy 400 million free N95 masks to the public, the high-quality face coverings are starting to arrive at pharmacies and grocery stores.
"Every person is allowed up to 3 free masks pending availability," the Department of Health and Human Services states.
The White House launched its latest effort to combat COVID-19 following new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC now says cloth masks are no longer as effective in preventing the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus and that people should wear an N95 or KN95 mask.
The coveted nonsurgical N95 masks are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of them on hand. The program should be up and fully operational by early February.
Where can I get mine?
On Monday, Meijer, which operates more than 250 groceries and pharmacies throughout the Midwest, said the stores had received an estimated 3 million masks.
"The N95 masks will be in boxes set on a table near the Meijer Greeter stand of the grocery entrance," the company said. "The Greeter, who will be wearing gloves, will place the N95 masks in piles of three for the customers to take."
Kroger stores with pharmacies will also be doling out the masks throughout the chain's Midwest and Southwest locations. Spokeswoman Kristal Howard said the first allotment of masks is expected to arrive on Thursday.
Walgreens is also participating in the distribution program, and on Tuesday, spokesman Scott Goldberg told NPR the masks will be made available for free while supplies last.
"We expect the first stores to begin offering masks on Friday, Jan. 28 and will continue on a rolling basis in the days and weeks following," Goldberg said, explaining that customers are limited to three masks per person. "Participating stores will have signage indicating mask availability."
Similarly, CVS Pharmacy locations will also be offering free N95 masks in the coming weeks, spokesman Matt Blanchette told NPR.
A full list of participating retailers is available here.
Hardest-hit communities will have to wait a little longer
While there are no restrictions on who can drop in to grab N95 masks from participating retailers, the stash that has been set aside for many of the nation's poorest and most impacted communities won't be sent out for another month, at least.
The White House said on Monday that more than 25 million N95 masks will be delivered beginning in March and through May to more than 1,300 community health centers across the country, along with 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens.
"Two-thirds of the people served by Community Health Centers are living in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are unhoused," the White House said, adding that people will be eligible to pick up two masks per person from their local community health center.
It said many of the nation's roughly 300 food banks will also be getting N95s.
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