Biden says the U.S. will provide free N95 masks to all Americans — here's what you need to know

"If it's an N95, it should say it is NIOSH-approved."

A healthcare worker wears a N95 respirator with two straps that fit around the head.
Bryan R. Smith | AFP | Getty Images

The federal government will provide Americans with free, high-quality masks, President Joe Biden said in a speech addressing the nation on Thursday.

"I know that for some Americans, the mask is not always affordable or convenient to get," he said. "Next week we'll announce how we're making high-quality masks available to the American people for free."

The news comes after talks that the Centers for Disease Control is considering updating its masking policy to recommend Americans wear N95 or KN95 masks, which offer better protection and air filtration than a cloth or even surgical mask.

Politicians have pressured the president to make the masks widely available, and ideally at no cost. Senator Bernie Sanders I-VT, tweeted, "Here is the simple truth: We can save lives and we can save money if we make sure that all of our people have the best quality masks available to them — free of charge."

The move is an effort to curb the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Until the administration provides more details about when and how the masks will be provided Americans are still left to find masks on their own. Here are three questions about where to find an N95, KN95, or comparable mask, answered by health professionals.

Is there any place I can get an N95 for free right now?

A plan for mask distribution will be announced next week, Biden said. In the meantime, some local health departments are already offering free N95 and KN95 masks, says Emily Gee, the vice president and coordinator for health policy at the Center For American Progress.

On December 27, Governor Ned Lamon of Connecticut announced that the state will distribute six million N95 masks, for example.

Check your local health department website to see if your town or state is making a similar effort and if there is a way to get free N95 masks.

Where can I buy a medical-grade mask safely?

You can find KN95 and N95 masks at many big box retailers and online. Both are effective at filtering air particles and approved in the U.S. N95s are the U.S. standard and KN95s are the Chinese standard.

However, there are counterfeit ones that won't protect you as effectively, Gee says: "If it's an N95, it should say it is NIOSH-approved."

The CDC has a web page with a running list of NIOSH-approved masks to help you figure out which manufactures are selling them. Project N95 has compiled a list of where to get NIOSH certified & FDA Cleared N95s masks, along with prices.

A 50-pack of Kimberly Clark masks are $57.15 on Amazon and are NIOSH-approved, as is this 10-pack from Fangtian for $25.95, also sold on Amazon.

Should I throw out my other masks?

Even if the CDC changes its mask guidance, cloth and surgical masks aren't useless. "Cloth masks are better than nothing, surgical mask provide better filtration than cloth ones, and N95 or KN95 are best," Gee says.

It's true that N95 or KN95 masks offer more serious protection, says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"If I have a patient that tested positive for a common cold, I can get away with wearing a surgical mask, but if someone tests positive for tuberculosis I wear my my N95," he says.

Cloth masks are better than nothing, surgical mask provide better filtration than cloth ones, and N95 or KN95 are best.
Emily Gee
vice president and coordinator for health policy at the Center For American Progress

But, he says, the "purpose" of an N95 and KN95 mask is to protect the wearer for a longer period of time. If you're "limiting your time to 30 to 60 minutes" at a place, a surgical mask should be fine, he says. Especially if everyone else you're interacting with is masked.

"If you're going to the grocery store where everyone is masked, you can get away with a surgical mask," he says.

It's more important for those in certain professions, such as teachers, to invest in or be provided N95 or KN95 masks, he says: "If you're around a bunch of three-year-olds that aren't vaccinated, it would be good to have."

Starting January 19, you'll also be able to order a maximum of four at-home Covid tests, free, from COVIDTests.gov.

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