US to distribute 400 million free N95 masks at CVS, Walgreens in COVID fight

Jeff Mason and Lisa Baertlein, Reuters

Posted at Jan 20 2022 05:04 AM

N95 respirators are stacked for during manufacturing in Paterson, New Jersey, January 14, 2022. Brendan McDermid, Reuters
N95 respirators are stacked for during manufacturing in Paterson, New Jersey, January 14, 2022. Brendan McDermid, Reuters

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES—The US government will make 400 million non-surgical N95 masks from its strategic national stockpile available for free to the public starting next week, a White House official said, as the Biden administration tries to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

Snug-fitting N95 face masks, so-called because they filter at least 95% of particulate matter from the air, will be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers this week, the official said, and available for pickup late next week.

The US government is leveraging the "federal retail pharmacy program," it used for vaccines, the White House said, as well as federally funded health clinics that serve minority groups hit hard by COVID infections and deaths.

Retail chain CVS, which has nearly 10,000 U.S. pharmacy locations including within Target stores, and Walgreens, which has over 9,000 stores, plan to distribute free masks, company spokespeople said.

The move came after President Joe Biden and his team faced criticism for not doing enough to foster masking or bolster testing as the omicron variant rages across the country, and hospitalizations hit a new record.

The administration also made free rapid home tests available via a website that launched officially on Wednesday.

"This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history," the official said about the masks, which retail for $1 to $2 online.

Multi-layered masks like the N95 that form a seal around the nose and mouth are considered especially effective at preventing virus spread. Last week the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that Americans wear the "the most protective mask" that they can.

Consumer demand for N95s and other more protective masks has spiked in recent days.

MASK SUPPLY

Hospitals have recovered from the desperate N95 shortages of the early pandemic, but several executives told Reuters that healthcare supply chains remain fragile.

On December 29, there were 747 million in the US government's Strategic National Stockpile, 59 times pre-pandemic levels, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

US mask makers told Reuters they have the machines to make millions of N95s each month.

3M, the largest manufacturer of N95 respirators in the United States, has the capacity to make more than 2 billion of those masks a year at factories in South Dakota, Nebraska and elsewhere in the world, spokesperson Jennifer Ehrlich said.

3M has "already supplied the federal and state governments with hundreds of millions of N95s that are in stockpiles for this purpose, and we will replenish them as needed," she said.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell, Heather Timmons and Cynthia Osterman)

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