Just as free at-home COVID-19 tests hit mailboxes around the country, the federal government is kicking off another key initiative to combat the pandemic: free masks.
The Biden administration has begun shipping N95 masks to pharmacies and community health centers around the country as part of its plan to get hundreds of millions of high-quality masks into the hands of Americans, free of charge. Certain pharmacies, including some Walmart and Meijer locations, have already started distributing free masks, and several other national chains say they will begin giving them out later this week.
Well-fitting N95 masks offer the highest level of protection from COVID-19, according to the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On Jan. 19, the White House along with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that they would make 400 million N95 masks from the National Strategic Stockpile available to the public for free. Each person is eligible for three free masks, supply permitting. The program is expected to go into full effect in early February.
Some Hy-Vee, Walmart and Meijer locations began handing out masks as early as Jan. 21, according to White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. CVS, Kroger and Walgreens have announced that certain locations are receiving their first shipments of masks this week and will begin distributing them shortly thereafter.
“This is the largest deployment of PPE, personal protective equipment, in U.S. history,” Zients said in a COVID-19 press briefing Jan. 26.
The free N95 masking initiative is separate from the free at-home COVID-19 testing program available through COVIDtests.gov. Unlike the testing program, which involves the shipping of free tests via U.S. mail, the masks must be picked up in-person.
“We just determined that the fastest way to get masks out was through the channels that we use for vaccines — including community health centers and local pharmacies,” Zients said.
Where to get free N95 masks from the federal government
Beyond the three-per-person limit, it's unclear what rules, if any, affect how the masks are distributed. In a statement to Money, CVS says it will not be checking IDs when customers pick up free masks.
Here are more details about where and when you can get free high-quality masks.
Who’s giving away free masks right now?
CVS, Hy-Vee, Kroger, Meijer, Walgreens and Walmart are already participating at certain locations — or plan to be by the end of the week.
In a statement shared with Money, Walgreens says its first batch of stores plans to hand out masks starting Friday, Jan. 28.
Certain Kroger locations will soon follow. “We anticipate beginning to receive our allotment later this week,” says Kroger spokesperson Kristal Howard, noting that free masks will only be available at “Kroger stores with pharmacies.”
In addition, approximately 100 community health centers across several states plan to roll out the program this week, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.
Not all community health centers or pharmacies will have access to free N95 masks early. The ones that do have them should display some HHS signage about the free mask program.
Many more centers and pharmacies will be added soon.
Which pharmacies will be distributing free masks?
Once the program is in full effect, you will be able to get free N95 makes from 21 major pharmacy chains and networks.
These pharmacies are a part of a “Federal Retail Pharmacy Program” that was initially established to provide COVID-19 vaccines all around the country. Soon, they will begin distributing N95 masks, too.
Notable pharmacies include:
- Acme pharmacies
- Food Lion
- Giant Food
- Kroger locations with pharmacies
- Rite Aid
- Walgreens (including Duane Reade)
- Walmart (including Sam’s Club)
- Winn-Dixie pharmacies
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compiles a comprehensive list of all retail pharmacy partners, including state-by-state locations.
Which community health centers are giving out free masks?
As of Jan. 26, approximately 100 community centers across more than 30 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., are participating in the initial phase of the free mask program.
The following areas have at least one health center slated to distribute masks:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- Puerto Rico
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Many more health centers will be added as the program ramps up. Check with the Health Resource and Services Administration (HRSA) frequently for an updated list of participating centers.
Other ways to get free masks from the government
Separate from the free mask program run by the federal government, several states have their own free masking programs that are already handing out tens of millions of KN95, N95 and/or surgical masks.
California, Connecticut, Colorado, New York and Washington have all been distributing free masks to their residents ahead of the federal program.
Each state’s program is unique, but the states are generally handing them out at schools, libraries, community centers and local health departments. Here’s a rundown of where to get free masks in select states.