Consumer’s guide to free N95 masks: Where in Chicago, suburbs to get them from the government starting next week

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As part of the Biden administration’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, the federal government will soon make 400 million N95 masks available to the public free of charge in thousands of locations across the United States.

The White House says shipments of N95 masks, which experts say provide much better protection against the virus than cloth masks, will be distributed starting next week. In early February, the goal is to make the program fully operational, giving Americans the opportunity to acquire better quality masks for free.

Here’s what Chicagoans need to know about the upcoming rollout of free N95 masks:

Why do I need N95 masks?

Respirators — including N95, KN95 and KN94 masks — are designed to achieve a perfect facial fit and efficient filtration of airborne particles. They have a denser network of fibers than surgical or cloth masks and an electrostatic charge. N95s are made of a polypropylene material that goes through a process in which it is melted and extruded through small-diameter holes into hundreds of tiny fibers that intertwine.

The fibers are then charged by passing them through a device that produces static electricity. The charge makes them 10 times more effective at capturing particles.

But the key is a good fit: there should be no air pockets or voids around the nose, cheeks or chin.

When will the masks be available?

Select locations will begin making the masks available next week, while the White House plans to have the program fully operational nationwide by early February.

Where will these free masks be available?

Chicago and suburban pharmacies have partnered with the federal government to distribute the masks. These include Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, and Costco stores, although some locations may not have them.

A Walgreens spokesperson told the Sun-Times on Friday that masks will be available “at select Walgreens locations nationwide while supplies last.”

Here is the full list of partners located in Chicago, via the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Albertsons Companies, Inc. (including Osco, Jewel-Osco, Albertsons, Albertsons Market, Safeway, Tom Thumb, Star Market, Shaw’s, Haggen, Acme, Randalls, Carrs, Market Street, United, Vons, Pavilions, Amigos, Lucky’s, Pak n Save, Save).
  • Costco Wholesale Corp.
  • CPESN USA, LLC.
  • CVS Pharmacy, Inc. (including Long’s).
  • Good Neighbor Pharmacy and the pharmaceutical services administrative organization of AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation (PSAO), Elevate Provider Network.
  • Health Mart pharmacies.
  • LeaderNET and The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy, PSAO from Cardinal Health.
  • Meijer, Inc.
  • The Kroger Co. (including Kroger, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, Fry’s, Ralphs, King Soopers, Smiths, City Market, Dillons, Mariano’s, Pick-n-Save, Copps, Metro Market, QFC).
  • Walgreens (including Duane Reade).
  • Walmart, Inc. (including Sam’s Club).

Given high demand, it may be a good idea to call ahead to make sure a particular store has stock available.

How many can I get?

Each person will be able to collect three N95 masks, according to the White House. It’s unclear if that means someone could pick up three masks from one store and then walk to another and pick up three more.

What if I want masks for my children?

For this deployment, only N95 masks designed for adults will be available. The White House says it plans to have “additional high-quality masks for children available in the near future.”

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