INDIANAPOLIS — The Biden Administration plans to begin making 400 million non-surgical N95 masks available to Americans for free starting next week.

It’s the latest move announced by the White House, aimed at fighting the surging omicron variant. Officials said they plan to begin delivering N95 masks to pharmacies and healthcare centers across the country by the end of the week.

“I think this is an excellent decision to provide those masks to people. I highly encourage people not only to mask for themselves, but for the safety of those who you love,” said Sherry Weir, Manager of Infection Prevention for Franciscan Health Central Indiana.

The masks will be deployed from the Strategic National Stockpile, which currently has more than 750 million N95 masks, triple the supply available one year ago. A White House official said people looking to pick up their free masks will be limited to three per person. Plans on how that will be monitored by locations that receive the masks have not been announced.

Mask confusion

Despite the ever-changing guidance throughout the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently came out and said that N95 respirators offer the highest level of protection.

“The N95 is going to have a higher filtration level, it’s going to be more protective than another mask that is not going to have quite the same effect as far as filtering the particles that you’re inhaling or exhaling,” said Weir.

Experts also stated that KN95 masks work well at providing a strong layer of protection against the virus.

“What the CDC does recommend is that you find a mask that works for you and fits well for you,” said Weir. “If you’re wearing a mask, it doesn’t matter how good it is, if it’s got gaps on the side, if you can breathe around it, if it doesn’t fit across your nose, or if you’re five minutes into wearing it and feel like you’re going to suffocate, you need to find a mask that works well for you.”

How do you know when it’s time to throw the mask away and put on a new one?

“You can wear a mask until it’s visibly soiled or until it becomes wet,” said Weir. “So, if you’re out there playing basketball and you’ve got a mask on, it’s going to get wet, it’s going to get soiled. You’ll have to change that more frequently.”

Weir said another sign that it’s time for a mask to go, is when it loses elasticity.

“If it loses its elasticity and you’re no longer able to maintain a tight fit with it, that would be another reason to change out your mask,” she said.

To prolong the life of a mask, Weir said you can put it in a plastic sack somewhere where it can breathe, while you rotate other masks.

“Within probably 24 to 48 hours, all of the viruses left on that mask that have been contained within it, are going to be dead,” said Weir.

The higher quality the mask, the safer of an environment it will provide for you and those around you, she said.

“It’s in the air around us, so you need that mask for two reasons, number one so that when you’re coughing or sneezing, you’re not sending those droplets into the air for somebody else to be exposed to. Also, because you want to filter what other people are coughing and sneezing and putting into the air so that you have a less chance of getting COVID yourself.”

She believes people should take advantage of the three free masks that will be available soon at the locations that receive them and explains why mask wearing shouldn’t be halted at this time in the pandemic.

“The statistics around the world, those are important, but what I see is in my own little world, and what I see is every day, people are dying,” said Weir. “Every day there’s somebody whose young, somebody who should be out with their friends, in school and instead they’re in an ICU bed fighting for their life.”

“You don’t know how your body is going to respond to COVID. Hopefully, you’ll have a very mild case but you could be one of those unlucky ones or you could have a mild case, or you could give the virus to somebody else who unfortunately ends up in the hospital or ends up on my list.”

FOX59 News reached out to several major grocery chains and retailers with pharmacies in Indiana, including Walmart, Meijer, Kroger, CVS and Walgreens. Several said they were awaiting the final details, but that they will be participating in the program.

Walgreens

We are pleased to partner with the Administration to make N95 masks in varying sizes available free of charge at select Walgreens locations nationwide while supplies last. We know masks are an effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19. We are currently finalizing the operational details of this program and will provide more information once available. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have remained committed to providing vaccinations, testing services and products that are critical to helping protect our communities.

Spokesperson, Walgreens

CVS Health

Through our continued participation in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, we’ll be offering access free N95 masks at CVS Pharmacy locations in the coming weeks as we receive supply from the Federal Government. 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.

Spokesperson, CVS Health

Walmart

From the beginning of the pandemic, we have worked to meet the needs of our communities and help keep them safe and healthy by setting-up COVID testing sites, administering tens of millions of vaccines and boosters, and dispensing authorized COVID-19 oral antiviral medications. We are proud to continue to serve our customers, members and associates now through N95 mask distribution as part of the US Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. Masks will be available starting late next week at the front of select stores and in select clubs for individuals and families to pick-up three masks per person as determined by the federal government to help keep themselves and others healthy while supplies last.

Spokesman, Walmart

A spokesperson for Meijer also responded to FOX59’s request for comment on their plans to be involved in the distribution efforts. They said the company will be participating in the program, but that Meijer is waiting on shipments from the federal government, with hopes to begin distribution at some time next week.

A company spokesperson also said that they are still finalizing details on how to get the masks in stores, how to monitor the customer limits, and more.