Many U.S. residents will be able to find free masks at local retailers, pharmacies, and community health centers over the next few weeks, following the federal government’s deployment of 400 million N95 masks to the general public from the Strategic National Stockpile.
Two days after the Biden administration launched the program on Jan. 19, large retailers such as Hy-Vee, Walmart, and Meijer made the N95 masks available online, according to Jeffrey Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator.
“Americans will be able to pick up free masks, as I said earlier, at tens of thousands of convenient sites, including, as you mentioned, community health centers around the country and local pharmacies,” Zients said at a Jan. 26 teleconference, noting that the program will hit full strength “across the next couple of weeks.”
The announcement came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its masking recommendations by encouraging Americans to wear medical-grade N95 or KN95 masks previously prioritized for health care workers due to supply shortages.
“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” the CDC website reads.
Following President Joe Biden’s mask announcement, small U.S. mask-makers reported a 70 to 80 percent decline in N95 sales, the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA) told The Hill on Jan. 26.
“We absolutely support that the Biden administration is helping get high-quality masks on people’s faces quickly, but there is an unintended consequence to that action, and we’re hoping that it’s followed up with purchases based on President Biden’s Buy American order,” AMMA Chairman Brent Dillie said.
To replenish the nation’s emergency stockpile of 750 million N95 masks, the Biden administration plans to sign contracts with domestic manufacturers that can produce 141 million N95 respirators per month, according to Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.
This means that small mask producers are likely to miss out on the deal, with only the largest domestic manufacturers, such as 3M Co. and Honeywell Inc., being able to meet that standard.
Walgreens, which is one of several chains rolling out the masks, has begun giving away N95 masks at selected pharmacies, according to NBC, with a limit of three per person. All Walgreens pharmacies are anticipated to receive N95 masks by mid-February, according to a statement.
All 275 Hy-Vee pharmacy branches will receive their mask allocation by the middle of the week starting on Jan. 31, a company spokeswoman told NBC.
Meijer, which told NBC that it has been allocated 3 million masks, started giving them out on Jan. 24.