Pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens have been a central fixture throughout the COVID pandemic. From vaccines to at-home COVID tests, these companies have been providing essential services and products to the public for more than two years. But the fight is far from over. Coronavirus infections have increased by more than 33 percent in just the last week, thanks in large part to the Omicron variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the wake of this fast-spreading version of the virus, COVID mitigation measures are more important than ever. With that in mind, CVS and Walgreens have given a new update on COVID protection for their customers. Read on to find out the pharmacies’ latest move.
Both CVS and Walgreens have just confirmed that they will be distributing free N95 masks through their pharmacies soon as part of a new plan from the White House. “Through our continued participation in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, we’ll be offering access to free N95 masks at CVS Pharmacy locations in the coming weeks as we receive supply from the Federal Government,” a CVS spokesperson told cbs-affiliate KMOV 4 in statement.
Walgreens made a similar announcement. “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,” a spokesperson for the company told the news outlet in a statement. “We are currently finalizing the operational details of this program and will provide more information once available.”
A White House official said that the U.S. government will be making 400 million non-surgical N95 masks available for free to the public starting next week, Reuters reported on Jan. 19. These N95 masks will come from the Strategic National Stockpile, which is the country’s emergency reserve, and be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers this week before being made available for pickup late next week. The White House said that “to ensure broad access for all Americans, there will be three masks available per person,” according to NBC.
“This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history,” the official said about the masks. According to Reuters, these masks normally retail for roughly $1 to $2 online, but CVS currently only has a 3-pack of N95 masks listed online for $10.49, now out of stock. Walgreens does not have any N95 masks listed on its website.
N95 masks have been a point of contention through the pandemic, as officials initially urged the public not to use them so that they could be reserved for health care professions. On Jan. 14, the CDC updated its mask guidance to now clarify that “people can choose respirators” such as N95 masks and remove any lingering concerns related to supply shortages of this type of mask. Health experts have been advocating for stronger masks for quite some time.
According to the CDC, N95 masks “provide the highest level of protection” from COVID by filtering at least 95 percent of virus particles in the air when worn consistently and properly. They also keep your respiratory droplets and particles from infecting others more effectively than other masks can.
“A respirator has better filtration, and if worn properly the whole time it is in use, can provide a higher level of protection than a cloth or procedural mask,” the CDC states on its website. “To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, CDC continues to recommend that you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”
A N95 mask might not be the best choice for you, however. Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Prevention that these masks aren’t for everyone. “N95 masks have rubber straps that go over your head, and some people don’t tolerate that well,” he explained.
And they might not be right for every situation, as they can be uncomfortable to wear for longer periods of time. “You still may want to have it to run into a crowded grocery store, but maybe not for longer use,” Russo said.
The CDC says it’s more important to wear whatever is most comfortable and suitable for you—even if that does not end up being an N95. “Some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others, and some may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently than others. It is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection,” the agency states.