Free at-home Covid tests are now available and free N95 masks are coming soon: How to get yours

High-quality masks are "a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable Omicron variant."

@allatsy via Twenty/20

Protecting yourself against a Covid-19 infection just got a little less expensive, thanks to new White House initiatives.

The government launched on Tuesday, January 18, which allows each U.S. household to order four at-home Covid-19 tests for free. All you have to do is enter your name and mailing address and your tests will be shipped within 7-12 days. 

If you want to track your order, you can enter your email address, though it's not required.

The Biden administration will make 400 million highly protective N95 masks available for free. You'll be able to pick up free masks — up to three per adult — at thousands of community health centers and pharmacies across the country starting next week, and the giveaway program should be fully up and running by early February, the White House said.

The average cost of a two-pack of at home tests is $24, while N95 masks range can cost as much as $3 per mask. If you test weekly and use a new mask every five days, as the CDC recommends, you could save around $67 per month.

Here's what to keep in mind when claiming your free tests and masks.

At-home tests are only about 85% accurate

At-home rapid antigen tests, like Abbott's BinaxNOW test, have an overall sensitivity rate of about 85%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means the tests are catching about 85% of people who are infected with the virus and missing 15%, which is a high number especially when millions of people get tested each day.

At-home tests are more sensitive in people with symptoms than without and are most sensitive during the first week of symptoms, according to a study by Cochrane, a global independent network of health researchers.

When used serially, rapid antigen tests can work better, which may mean you need more than four tests. If you test negative after a possible exposure to Covid-19, or after developing symptoms, take a test every three days, according to the CDC. Whether you're up-to-date on your Covid-19 vaccinations or not, you should take these precautions for 10 days after exposure, the agency says.

High-quality face masks help limit the spread of Covid: They're a 'really important tool'

Biden has acknowledged that high-quality masks are expensive and often not easy to find. "I know that for some Americans, a mask is not always affordable or convenient to get," he said on January 13. "I know we all wish that we could finally be done with wearing masks. I get it."

But, he added, "they're a really important tool to stop the spread, especially of a highly transmittable Omicron variant."

N95 masks 'provide the highest level of protection' against omicron

Previously, the CDC didn't recommend that everyone wear medical-grade masks, fearing shortages for health-care workers. Now, the agency says, shortages are no longer a concern.

"When worn consistently and properly," the CDC said in updated guidance published last week, N95 respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, or NIOSH, "provide the highest level of protection from particles, including the virus that causes Covid-19."

Other good options include KN95 and surgical masks, which provide more protection than cloth masks.

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