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Free N95 masks from federal gov't already available in some stores; more coming soon

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Free N95 masks from federal gov't already available in some stores; more coming soon
N95 masks from the federal stockpile are seen available at a Hy-Vee store in West Des Moines, Iowa, last week. Other pharmacy and grocery chains will soon ramp up distribution of the masks. Photo courtesy of Ben Wakana/White House COVID-19 Response Team/Twitter

Jan. 26 (UPI) -- Millions of Americans will be able to pick up free N95 masks at grocery stores and pharmacies nationwide beginning Wednesday, as part of a White House effort to control the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

President Joe Biden announced last week that his administration would make 400 million of the specialized N95 masks from the national stockpile available to Americans at no cost. Health officials say the masks offer better protection than cloth masks -- they are made of a specialized material and fit tighter around the nose and mouth.

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Biden said Americans can have as many as three N95 masks each, and that officials expect the distribution to ramp up in early February. Some pharmacies and grocery stores involved in the federal program have already begun making them available.

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The N95 masks can be found at various grocery and pharmacy chains nationwide, including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Kroger, Hy-Vee and Meijer. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has compiled a state-by-state list of places in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program where they can be picked up.

Meijer, which operates 250 grocery stores and pharmacies throughout the Midwest, said its stores have received about 3 million of the specialized masks.

Several N95 masks are seen at Saint Louis University Hospital in 2020. The N95 masks have been the recommended type for front-line healthcare and emergency workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and are being made available to Americans nationwide. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

"The N95 masks will be in boxes set on a table near the Meijer greeter stand of the grocery entrance," the company said in a statement this week. "The greeter, who will be wearing gloves, will place the N95 masks in piles of three for customers to take."

Christina Gayman, a representative for Hy-Vee, told NBC's Today that the grocery chain, which operates mostly in the Midwest and South, began distributing the masks last week. She added that all Hy-Vee stores are expected to have N95 masks available by Wednesday.

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Walgreens, the pharmacy chain with about 9,000 stores across the United States, is expected to begin distributing N95 masks on Friday -- while competitor Rite Aid says they will be available in some of its locations later this week, and all stores by early next month.

Retail giant Walmart said it expects to begin making N95 masks from the federal stockpile available late next week -- and pharmacy chain CVS said it will start receiving them soon.

"Through our continued participation in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, we'll be offering access to to free N95 masks at CVS Pharmacy locations in the coming weeks as we receive supply from the federal government," CVS said in a statement.

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"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."

The White House has said that more than 25 million of the N95 masks will also be delivered to 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in the United States beginning in March.

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