Will the Free N95 Mask Initiative Actually Help Pandemic Response?

N95 mask

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Key Takeaways

  • The White House announced an initiative to provide 400 million free N95 masks for the general public through pharmacies and community health centers.
  • The free masks will be limited to three per person.
  • While some experts applaud the effort, others say it raises inequity concerns, and question whether spending money on masking is the best allocation of resources at the current stage of the pandemic.

Starting next week, the Biden administration will make 400 million N95 masks available for free at pharmacies and community health centers. The announcement follows the administration’s campaign to mail out free COVID-19 testing kits to households.

Pharmacies that are part of the federal vaccine program will likely be distributing the N95 masks. Three masks will be available per adult. 

Some public health experts applauded the decision, while others are hesitant to offer the president credit just yet, pointing to unresolved equity issues in mask distribution, a lack of White House guidance for correct usage of face masks, and a potential waste of money in resources that could have been used to bolster other efforts in the pandemic response.

“Increasing the accessibility of these high quality masks gave me a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark time,” Mya Roberson, MSPH, PhD, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Verywell.

While Roberson said she was initially “elated” to hear about the announcement, a further reading made her question if the masks would truly get into the hands of those who need them.

“I do have some equity concerns,” she said.

Unlike the free at-home test initiative where people will receive the test kits directly by mail, people will have to visit a pharmacy or health center in person to get their masks. While pharmacies and health centers are prime access spots for some people, they are not everyone’s most frequent drop-in point, Roberson said.

Some people in marginalized communities or who are more vulnerable may not receive health care frequently, or at all, she added.

“We need to think more broadly about distribution,” Roberson said, adding that the administration could reuse the mail order idea or give out masks in places like grocery stores, churches or public transit for accessibility.

Despite the caveats, Roberson said that there still appears to be a net benefit to the rollout. It could save people some money or minimize the trouble of trying to authenticate the masks on their own.

“There’s only so much protection when you’re surrounded by maskless folks,” Roberson said. “Even when the workers try to take the appropriate protections for them, it puts them in a very vulnerable spot.”

Lowering the cost can be especially important for people who work in low-wage jobs and who are exposed to unmasked people during their work. This is common in Nashville, where Roberson is based, she said.

“The southeastern United States has some of the most whack masking policies,” Roberson added. “The southeastern United States is also where the highest density of Black Americans live in the country, and that’s not lost on me in these equity considerations.”

Activists Call for More Free Masks and Tests

Kristin Urquiza, MPA, who lost her parents to COVID-19 in 2020, launched a grassroots organization called Marked By COVID to advocate for better public health policies. The group is running a campaign called Dear Zients, where they call on White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients to provide people with better testing and mask access.

The letter calls for Zients to go beyond the current rollout and provide “an ample and continuous supply” of free tests and masks and to institute data-driven policies for proper use.

“The goal for this campaign is not just free masks and tests, but continuously free masks and tests,” Deshira Wallace, PhD, MSPH, a public health advisor to Marked By COVID, told Verywell. “If we were able to have enough of these free or even low-cost tests and masks that were continuously accessible, we wouldn’t have these super long lines, or delays in getting these resources.”

The free mask initiative is just a “Band-Aid” to current problems with the pandemic response, she added.

The letter is expected to be hand delivered by Urquiza in the next few days, Wallace said.

What to Know About Wearing N95s

In order for an N95 to work correctly and prevent transmission, it needs to be worn and handled properly. 

Dina Velocci, DNP, CRNA, APRN, president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA), told Verywell that the general public may not know how to properly wear and handle an N95. Healthcare professionals tend to be knowledgeable about N95 guidelines, but people who never used the masks before may not have received adequate information, she added.

“As healthcare providers, we’re all fit-tested with N95s because if you have any bit of a leak, the mask doesn’t even work,” Velocci said.

Along with fit tests, N95s should be considered single-use masks, and people should not touch their face or the mask while wearing them or taking them off, she added.

How to Put On and Take Off an N95

N95 masks come with a top and bottom strap. To correctly put on the mask, touch the straps, not the mask itself, and apply the bottom strap first, Velocci said. Once on, make sure the mask has a good fit and seal. One way to do this in a household is to spray Febreze into the air. If you can smell the Febreze, the mask needs to be adjusted.

To take off, pull the top strap first, and do not touch the mask, Velocci said. Ideally, the mask should then be discarded and not reused.

Velocci said she was disappointed in a lack of clear, factual guidance from the White House in regards to proper masking.

“I wish we would actually follow evidence-based medicine and actually teach people how to do good techniques on preventing themselves from spreading infections,” Velocci said.

Without that, “You think you’re doing something, but the reality is, you’re not,” she added.

Should Everyone Wear an N95?

N95 masks are designed to protect people from airborne and droplet-based viruses. This is different from some of the more accessible and lower quality masks that are designed to protect people from aerosolized droplets.

Airborne transmission consists of smaller and longer lasting droplets than droplet transmission, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). COVID-19 transmission is commonly discussed as droplet transmission, but it may involve airborne transmission as well, according to the WHO. The organization recommends N95 masks for people caring for COVID-19 patients.

While N95s are shown to offer higher levels of protection than other alternatives, they may not be necessary for the general public, Shruti Gohil, MD, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Health, told Verywell.

Gohil said she was struck by the White House decision to prioritize masks above other public health measures rather than the debates over the types of masks that should be distributed.

“I see bigger priorities in the COVID pandemic response,” Gohil said, adding that the government could have funneled money toward local health agencies that are familiar with the needs of their communities.

Mask distribution can still help to an extent, but it would have been far more successful earlier on in the pandemic, she said.

“It’s all about timing,” Gohil said. “Right now, the way I see it, it’s really that we have other challenges that really need to be addressed.”

What This Means For You

Starting next week, you can pick up three N95 masks for free at your local pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens or community health centers.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.