By Jacqueline Howard and Betsy Klein, CNN
Just as free Covid-19 tests are landing in the mailboxes of people who ordered them, the first free N95 masks for the public have started to arrive at US pharmacies, with more on the way in the coming days.
The Biden administration seeks to ramp up access to high-quality masks amid the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Meanwhile, the free tests started shipping out last week, and are part of the administration’s effort to increase access to testing around the United States.
Masks already are set up for distribution at some Hy-Vee and Meijer grocery stores in the Midwest, with more expected at Southeastern Grocers stores later this week.
“Last week masks began shipping and arriving at pharmacies and grocers around (the) country. We expect that throughout the week the number of stores and N95s arriving to scale up significantly,” an administration official told CNN on Monday.
The Biden administration announced last week that the 400 million N95 masks, which are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile, will be distributed to pharmacies and community health centers, with the program expected to be fully up and running by early February. The masks are arriving at their destinations with accompanying flyers and signage from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which paid for the masks.
“Mask up and maximize your protection,” the flyers say, encouraging Americans to “help slow the spread of Covid by protecting yourself and those around you.”
The flyer, which is being distributed in both English and Spanish, notes that up to three of the free masks are “available to every person in the U.S.” It directs people to cdc.gov/coronavirus and includes a QR code with instructions on how to properly put on and take off the masks.
The masks are rolling out just as some in the United States are receiving US Postal Service packages containing free Covid-19 antigen tests they ordered.
Gourjoine Wade of San Antonio, Texas, told CNN he ordered the tests the day covidtests.gov went live last week. He wanted to have them on hand and ready for when they are needed.
“It’s another tool in the toolbox of keeping me, my family, and our community safe,” Wade said.
Where masks are arriving
Some of the first masks arrived in the Midwest on Friday, including at Hy-Vee grocery stores in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Meijer stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
Masks will also begin arriving at Southeastern Grocers locations as early this Friday, the official added, and will be available at Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie in-store pharmacies.
Mills Civic Hy-Vee in West Des Moines, Iowa, received masks Friday, along with nearly 150 other Hy-Vee locations. Photos provided by the store show employees handing out the individually wrapped packages of masks, with flyers positioned nearby for customers to take home.
“I can confirm that we began receiving and distributing our first shipments of N95 masks from HHS on Friday, Jan. 21. At this time, many Hy-Vee pharmacy locations have received and are distributing their mask allocations. All 275 Hy-Vee pharmacies in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin will have masks by mid-week,” Christina Gayman, a spokesperson for Hy-Vee, Inc., wrote in an email to CNN on Monday.
“We have received many positive comments from customers who are happy we have the masks and are distributing them so quickly. We still have masks available at all locations that have received them so far,” Gayman added.
At Meijer locations, the masks will be placed on tables near the store entrances and distributed by greeters. Meijer confirmed to CNN on Monday that it has received “an estimated 3 million masks” that will be made available for no charge to any customer who needs them.
CVS pharmacies are also expected to receive and begin distributing free N95 masks in the coming weeks as supply from the federal government comes in, spokesman Matt Blanchette told CNN in an email Monday.
Walgreens expects free N95 masks will be available at some locations starting this Friday, according to a company spokesperson.
“We are pleased to partner with the Administration to make N95 masks in varying sizes available free of charge at participating Walgreens locations while supplies last,” a Walgreens spokesperson wrote in an email to CNN on Monday.
“Customers and patients can pick up a maximum of three masks per person,” the email noted. “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. Participating stores will have signage indicating mask availability.”
The first 100 community health centers participating in the rollout of the federal government’s free N95 mask program will also start this week, Amy Simmons Farber, a spokesperson for the National Association of Community Health Centers wrote in an email to CNN on Monday. The Health Resources and Services Administration or HRSA oversees the Community Health Centers program for the federal government, and notes on its website that the HRSA Health Center COVID-19 N95 Mask Program will begin incrementally, providing N95 masks to approximately 100 to 200 health centers in the initial phase.
“These health centers should receive and start distributing masks before the end of January 2022,” according to HRSA. Farber added that by mid-February, HRSA anticipates that masks will be made available to all health centers.
“For now, the program is limited to around 300 Community Health Centers to ensure the logistics of receiving, storing and distributing the masks are worked out. Our understanding is the program will be widened to include more health centers as part of the Biden Administration’s effort to ensure underserved communities have equitable access to public health tools,” Farber wrote in the email.
“Our understanding is that these select health centers should be receiving the masks by the end of January,” Farber wrote. “Each individual health center will need time to develop a distribution plan and notification process for patients. If you are a patient, check with your local health center’s web site for announcements. Bear in mind that most health care systems are at capacity and workers are suffering from pandemic exhaustion — and health centers are no exception. Try to avoid overwhelming call centers for now.”
Masks are ‘largest deployment’ yet
This rollout of free masks has been called the federal government’s “largest deployment” yet.
“This effort represents the largest deployment by the Strategic National Stockpile to date and it’s also the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history,” Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS wrote in a blog post Friday.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not plan to change its guidance on mask usage as the administration ramps up access to these masks.
The CDC recommends Americans wear well-fitting masks, which can include multiple layers of cloth masks, N95s, or K95s.
“Masking is a critical public health tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask,” the CDC said in a statement earlier this month.
“Some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others, and some may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently than others,” CDC guidelines say. “It is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection.”
By having a better fit and certain materials — such as polypropylene fibers — acting as both mechanical and electrostatic barriers, N95 masks help to better prevent tiny particles from getting into the nose or mouth and must be fitted to the face to function properly.
“CDC continues to recommend that any mask is better than no mask. And we do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of Covid-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters in a briefing earlier this month. “And that recommendation is not going to change.”
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CNN’s Paul Murphy contributed to this report.