Many stores expect to offer free N95 masks this week

Author: Megan Cerullo / CBS News
A Hy-Vee pharmacist hands out free N95 masks provided by the U.S. Government. Courtesy of Hy-Vee

White House officials pledged last week to make 400 million certified N95 masks available to Americans for free in an effort to shore up the nation’s defenses against COVID-19. But consumers may have to shop around to get their hands on one.

Major pharmacy chains said they expect to start distributing the free face coverings this week. The effort comes as public health experts encourage the use of higher quality masks, including N95 respirators.

Well-fitted N95 masks filter 95% of airborne particles, and KN95 masks offer a similar level of protection. Cloth masks, or any covering that does not fit properly, offer far less protection against COVID-19.

A spokesperson for Hy-Vee, a chain of supermarkets located across midwestern and southern U.S. states, said its first shipments of government-issued N95 masks, which retail for roughly $3 – $5 apiece, arrived Friday.

“At this time, many Hy-Vee pharmacy locations have received and are distributing their mask allocations,” a company spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch.

All 275 Hy-Vee pharmacies in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin are expected to have masks by the middle of this week, the spokesperson added. Hy-Vee is part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program (FRPP), formed to expand access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

A retail clerk at a Hy-vee grocery store in Iowa City, Iowa, said it received a shipment of government-issued N95 masks on Monday afternoon. They are available at the front of the store and “are going pretty fast,” the employee told CBS MoneyWatch.

CVS Pharmacy, also part of the FRPP, said it will have the free N95 masks at stores in the “coming weeks” as shipments from the government arrive. On Monday, there were no free N95 masks available for pickup at any CVS Pharmacy locations nationwide.

“Our work to distribute high-quality masks as part of this program is an extension of our commitment to providing equitable access to the tools necessary to combat COVID-19, including testing, vaccines and authorized therapies,” a spokesperson said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

Walgreens, another FRPP partner, said it expects some of its stores to begin offering the N95s this Friday. The masks will be offered as long as supplies last, a spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch. Customers will be limited to three masks each.

Another national grocery chain, Kroger, expects its stores with pharmacies to receive an allotment of the N95 masks later this week.

“I encourage everyone to take advantage of the free non-surgical N95 masks and make an appointment today to get vaccinated or boosted,” Dr. Marc Watkins, Kroger’s chief medical officer, said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

Southeastern Grocers, a grocery store parent company that owns Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie, said its in-store pharmacies will carry 2 million government-issued N95 masks beginning Friday at the earliest, distributing them “as available and while supplies last.”

Largest PPE deployment in U.S. history

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness & Response, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, last week said it has 750 million NIOSH-certified N95 masks in the Strategic National Stockpile and will have plenty — 350 million — left for health care workers after it makes the disbursement.

ASPR began shipping the masks to pharmacies and community health centers Thursday, Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement last week.

“It’s one way we’re making higher quality masks available to the American people,” she said in the statement.

The effort marks “the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history,” ASPR also noted.

Brian Wolin, CEO of Protective Health Gear, a New Jersey-based manufacturer of NIOSH-approved N95s, said the initiative could initially hurt the company’s sales. But he sees a role for private suppliers in meeting the nation’s ongoing need for high-quality masks.

“As a domestic manufacturer, we are really hoping to be part of the long-term solution in filling and keeping the National Stockpile full for future need,” Wolin told CBS MoneyWatch.

In addition to pharmacies, community health centers serving a wide swath of the American population will also be providing free masks. Between 100 and 200 health centers will receive Strategic National Stockpile masks during the first phase of the program, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. They are expected to start distributing the masks before the end of January.

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