On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it will make 400 million N95 face masks available free of charge to Americans. Here's how to get yours.
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At this point in the pandemic, you've likely spent a hefty chunk of time over the past 22 months (!!) researching the best face masks and scrolling through sites such as Amazon to purchase the recommended pick(s). And with the varying guidance (i.e. first cloth masks were okay and now they're not), odds are your wallet's gotten quite the workout. But soon you should be able to give your bank account a bit of a break while still securing those much-needed face coverings.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it will make 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks available free of charge to Americans starting late next week. "This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history," a White House official told CNN, adding that the program will be "fully up and running by early February."

The N95 masks will come from the government's Strategic National Stockpile — essentially a federal repository or warehouse of drugs and supplies ready for deployment in the case of a national emergency — and will be given out at local pharmacies and community health centers nationwide. But don't expect to leave distribution locations with a tote bag full of masks. There are only three masks available per adult. As for children? "We anticipate making additional, high-quality masks for children available in the near future," an official told The Washington Post.

The administration's announcement comes as the highly-transmissible Omicron variant continues to sweep the country and just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines for face masks. While the agency continues to recommend that you "wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently," it now notes that certain masks and respirators (e.g. N95s approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health or NIOSH) provide "the highest level of protection" against COVID-19 compared to cloth coverings. (Related: Here's the Latest CDC Mask Guidance for COVID-19)

So, How Do You Get Your Free N95 Masks?

Unlike with the free COVID-19 tests (which you can order online), in order to actually get your free masks, you'll have to pick them up in person at a federal community health center or pharmacy, according to The Washington Post. Although specifics on exact distribution locations are still TBD, it appears that Walgreens is part of the program. "We are pleased to partner with the administration to make N95 masks in varying sizes available free of charge at select Walgreens locations nationwide while supplies last," a company spokesperson told NBC News Chicago. (Related: Can An N95 Mask Actually Protect You From the Coronavirus?)

As for when exactly you'll be able to pick up your three N95s? That's also somewhat TBD. U.S. officials are starting to ship masks at the end of this week, meaning they'll likely be available at your local pharmacy and health center late next week, reports The Washington Post. But the keyword here is "likely," as, again, a concrete timeline has not been made available to the public.

Officials also haven't addressed how (if at all) they're going to prevent someone from visiting pharmacies frequently and getting masks as each visit. But please don't get any ideas — just be a good citizen and stick to your allotted three free masks, as there should be more than enough to go around. After all, the 400 million nonsurgical N95s being distributed amount to more than half of the 750 million stored in the Stockpile, according to CNN. Plus, special surgical N95 masks will be reserved for health care workers and not given out alongside the nonsurgical respirators, so know that these pandemic warriors (and, TBH, heroes) are getting ample PPE, too.

What If You Need More N95 Masks or Need One ASAP?

While the opportunity to receive three respirators free of charge is undeniably exciting, there are some limitations. For starters, N95 masks are meant to be single-use. That being said, each covering can be used more than once if necessary but no more than five times, according to the CDC. Given this info, odds are you're going to still need to purchase additional masks to ensure optimal protection (research suggests that performance and efficacy decrease with use of the masks) as this pandemic continues.

And then, of course, there's the possibility that you need to restock your face covering collection now and, thus, can't wait for the government's rollout. If this is the case, know that there are plenty of options available for purchase online and in stores. But buyer beware: There's an increasing number of fake N95 and KN95 masks out there, so you want to be sure you know what to look for when shopping for PPE. (Related: How to Spot Fake COVID Test Kits)

Before whipping out your wallet, make sure the N95s in your cart have been tested and certified by NIOSH. Both the mask and its packaging should be labeled as "NIOSH-approved," meaning they meet a specific set of criteria to guarantee a certain level of protection and performance, Stella Hines, M.D., associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told USA Today. You can also refer to the NIOSH-Certified Equipment List on the CDC's website to see if your N95 mask's manufacturer and approval number (both of which should be on the respirator).

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.