How to get free N95 masks from the government starting next week

Close up N95 protective face mask to prevent COVID-19
N95 protective face mask to prevent COVID-19 Photo credit Getty Images Stock

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- As part of the Biden administration’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, the federal government will soon make 400 million N95 masks available for free to the public at thousands of locations across the United States.

The White House said shipments of the N95 masks, which experts say provide far greater protection against the virus than cloth masks, will be distributed beginning next week. By early February, the aim is to have the program fully operational, giving Americans a chance to acquire the higher-quality masks at no cost.

Here’s what Chicagoans need to know about the upcoming rollout of free N95 masks.

Why do I need N95 masks?

Respirators — including N95 masks, KN95s and KN94s — are designed to achieve a close facial fit and efficient filtration of airborne particles. They have a denser network of fibers than surgical or cloth masks and an electrostatic charge. N95s are made of a polypropylene material that goes through a process in which it’s melted and extruded through small-diameter holes into hundreds of tiny fibers that are tangled together.

The fibers are then charged by passing them through a device that produces static electricity. The charge makes them 10 times better at capturing particles.

But the key is proper fit: There should be no air gaps or voids around the nose, cheeks or chin.

When will the masks be available?

Some locations will begin making the masks available next week, while the White House plans to have the program fully operational across the nation by early February.

Where will these free masks be available?

Retail pharmacies in Chicago and the suburbs have partnered with the federal government to distribute the masks. These include Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, and Costco stores. Here’s the complete list of partners located in Chicago, via the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• Albertsons Companies, Inc. (including Osco, Jewel-Osco, Albertsons, Albertsons Market, Safeway, Tom Thumb, Star Market, Shaw’s, Haggen, Acme, Randalls, Carrs, Market Street, United, Vons, Pavilions, Amigos, Lucky’s, Pak n Save, Sav-On).
• Costco Wholesale Corp.
• CVS Pharmacy, Inc. (including Long’s).
• Good Neighbor Pharmacy and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation’s pharmacy services administrative organization (PSAO), Elevate Provider Network.
• Health Mart Pharmacies.
• LeaderNET and The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy, Cardinal Health’s PSAOs.
• Meijer, Inc.
• The Kroger Co. (including Kroger, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, Fry’s, Ralphs, King Soopers, Smiths, City Market, Dillons, Mariano’s, Pick-n-Save, Copps, Metro Market, QFC).
• Walgreens (including Duane Reade).
• Walmart, Inc. (including Sam’s Club).

Given the high demand, it might be good to call ahead of time to make sure that a given store has stock available.

How many can I get?

Each person will be able to pick up three N95 masks, according to the White House. It’s unclear whether this means someone could pick up three masks at one store location, then head to another and pick up three more.

What if I want masks for my children?

For this rollout, only N95 masks designed for adults will be available. The White House said it plans to have “additional, high-quality masks for children available in the near future.”

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire & Chicago Sun-Times 2022. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)