This week, the White House announced a potential game changer in the fight against omicron: free N95 masks.
As COVID-case rates and hospitalization rates reach all-time highs in the U.S., an official in the Biden administration announced on Wednesday plans to begin distributing 400 million non-surgical N95 masks to the public. The plan, which is set to go into effect next week and be “fully up and running by early February,” is to distribute the masks via local pharmacies, CNN reports.
As part of the new mask distribution program, people in the U.S. will be able to pick up three free masks per person from their local pharmacy. Details of how the system will work, including whether or not you will have to show ID or proof of residence, have not been announced. The distribution program will also not include child-sized masks, according to a report from Politico, though the government is reportedly working to secure them.
The announcement comes after many public health experts have said respirator masks, like N95s and KN95s, may be one of the best ways to protect yourself against omicron (in addition to getting vaccinated and boosted). As SELF previously reported, the typical cloth mask may only be about 25% effective at blocking the transmission of airborne particles, thanks to a loose fit and low-tech material. In the face of omicron, respirator masks have emerged as the gold standard. N95 and KN95 masks are made with four layers of material, at least one of which is polypropylene, a type of plastic that electrostatically filters out virus particles. When fitted properly, meaning there is a seal between the mask and your face and air is not leaking in or out, respirator masks are 95% effective at filtering airborne particles. (Surgical masks are also commonly made of polypropylene, but because of the looser fit may be 5 to 10% less effective than respirators, according to CNN.)
The Biden administration’s announcement comes days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally updated their official mask guidelines to recommend respirator masks over less effective cloth masks.
We’ve come a long way from the critical PPE shortages of the early pandemic and the era of DIY masks and loose-fitting face coverings. But getting high-quality masks continues to be challenging and cost-prohibitive for some. So, where are these 400 million free masks coming from all of a sudden? According to CNN, they’re part of the United States’ National Strategic Stockpile, which currently holds 750 million non-surgical N95s.
“I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it,” Biden said in a speech last week, per CNN. “But…they’re a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of the highly transmittable omicron variant. So, please, please wear the mask.”