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How to Get Free N95 Masks from the US Government

This week, the Biden administration will begin distributing free N95 masks — which offer the most protection among readily available disposable masks — to the public as part of its fight against the omicron wave.

The administration had announced last week that it would make 400 million N95 respirator masks available to the public free of charge at community health centers and pharmacies across the country. The announcement came on the heels of the deployment of a website to order free Covid-19 rapid tests.

The N95s will come from the United States Strategic National Stockpile, which is the federal government's stockpile for essential drugs and supplies for use during a public health emergency. The White House has called the move the largest deployment of protective gear ever. individual in U.S. history. Although belated according to some experts, the wave of giveaways signals a shift for the administration to move beyond a vaccine-centric campaign to combat and control the pandemic.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and former member of the Biden transition team's COVID task force, said he welcomes the free distribution of masks. there are people who can't afford them, people who can't get them because they don't have the internet, and being able to walk into pharmacies and just pick them up is fantastic,” he said. to Vox.

The Biden administration finally appears to be responding to criticism this winter for its national response to the pandemic. As masks head to distribution areas across the country, you may have questions about how to get them. .Here's what you need to know.

Where and when will N95 masks be available?

Free rapid Covid-19 tests are delivered by mail directly to people who sign up for them on the Covidtests.gov website. But Americans will have to pick up the free N95 masks in person at local pharmacies and health centers. (many of which serve vulnerable and underserved communities), with supplies becoming available as early as this week. (You may want to call your local pharmacy first to see if their shipments have arrived.)

The masks will be fully available at tens of thousands of those locations in early February, according to the White House. Pharmacies across the country reported having already received their shipments of N95 masks and distributing them to customers in recent days.

Pharmacies participating in the distribution of N95s will be the same ones that have partnered with the government to provide Covid-19 vaccines to the public. This includes major retail chains like Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, Walmart, Rite Aid, Kroger , Albertsons (think Safeway and Randalls) and Costco.

Are these masks free and how much can each person get?

Anyone can get up to three masks for free "to ensure broad access for all Americans," the White House said.

Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Vox it's unclear whether the administration will hand out more masks on the road. 'it is not clear if this is a one-time measure, the distribution of 400 million N95s represents more than half of the total 750 million N95 masks currently stored in the national strategic stockpile, which could be factored into the administration's thinking about whether to have another freebie down the road.

Why N95s instead of fabrics or surgical masks?

In updated guidance released recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that "although all masks and respirators provide some level of protection, properly fitted respirators" - the technical term for a face mask as an N95 – “provide the highest level of protection”.

Experts are increasingly claiming that cloth masks are insufficient in the face of a virus as infectious as the omicron variant of Covid-19, as they are not very effective in preventing small airborne particles from passing through. 'to the bearer.

N95s get their name from the fact that properly certified masks can filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, including aerosol particles and respiratory droplets. They also tend to have a tighter fit ( if worn correctly), making them superior to surgical masks, which are generally looser.

Although the administration distributes N95s, masks like KN95s and KF94s are also considered to provide a similar level of protection to N95s and are widely available from retailers. (N95s are certified to standards set by the United States government, KN95s by the Chinese government, and KF94s by the South Korean government.)

The problem is, there are fake versions of N95s and KN95s on the market. Here's the CDC's guide to determining if an N95 you come across is the legit item. For KN95s, the CDC here documents what what to look for.

Can you reuse N95 masks?

Since each person can only get three free N95s, you may need to extend the life of the masks.

The CDC says you shouldn't wear them more than five times. Yet Anne Miller of Project N95, a nonprofit that helps communities acquire personal protective equipment, COVID-19 diagnostic tests and other essential supplies, told NPR that you can think of the five ports in terms of eight-hour days or 40 hours of total port — meaning if you take a 20-minute trip to the store, you can count that as 20 minutes less than the 40 hour lifespan of this mask.

One of the ways the CDC and other experts recommend extending the use of your masks is what Miller calls the “brown bag decontamination method.” You can store an N95 in a breathable paper bag for a week, then reuse it, because the viral particles it contains will then have disappeared.

However, you should also exercise good judgment and discard any mask that seems dirty and difficult to wear or breathe, or if the fit begins to loosen.

Are the free N95s suitable for children?

The supply will not include masks for children, although the administration is working to procure masks specifically for children.

Because most N95s have traditionally been made for healthcare, manufacturing, and industrial use, there are no versions specifically designed for children, and any N95 marketed for children. Instead, try to get KN95s and KF94s, as these types of respirator masks have versions designed for children.

Better masks, better late than never

The rollout of the masks comes at a time when Covid-19 cases are finally starting to fall across the country after a debilitating week-long surge. This timing has some wondering if the distribution of masks and rapid tests too little, too late.

"Better late than never," Kates said, arguing that the plans are important signals that the Biden administration is pushing back on "the politicization of masks" and that it will do more to control Covid beyond vaccination.

Emanuel, who has previously said that individuals “wearing N95s are the single most important thing we can do to reduce transmission,” stressed to Vox that “we should not underestimate the power of social norms.” Handing out free N95s, he said, the Biden administration is encouraging people to be more "socially responsible."

It's a welcome move, but there is still much to be done, including improving large-scale ventilation, strengthening our hospital systems, building global vaccine production capacity, and increasing production of effective drugs and treatments.

In the meantime, sign up for rapid tests, head to your local pharmacy next week to get your masks, and hope the omicron wave is dying down.

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