Is the Free N95 Mask Program Really Helping the Pandemic?

key takeaways

  • The White House announced an initiative to provide the public with 400 million free N95 masks through pharmacies and community health centers.
  • The purchase of free masks is limited to three per person.
  • While some experts applaud the effort, others say it raises unfair concerns and questions whether spending money on masks is the best allocation of resources during the current phase of the pandemic.

Starting next week, the Biden administration will provide 400 million free N95 masks at pharmacies and community health centers. The announcement comes after the government launched a campaign to mail free COVID-19 test kits to households.

Pharmacies that are part of the federal vaccine program may distribute N95 masks. Three masks will be provided per adult.

Some public health experts applauded the decision, while others were hesitant to give credit to the president, pointing to unresolved issues of equity in mask distribution, the White House’s lack of guidance on the proper use of masks, and the potential waste of resources that could have been used. to support other efforts to respond to the pandemic.

“Increasing the availability of these high-quality masks gives me a silver lining,” Mya Roberson, PhD, MSPH, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told VigorTip.

While Robertson said she was “delighted” to hear the news initially, further reading made her wonder if the masks would actually end up in the hands of those who need them.

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

Unlike free at-home testing programs where people receive test kits directly in the mail, people must go to a pharmacy or health center to pick up a mask in person. While pharmacies and health centers are the main points of visit for some, they’re not the most frequented places for everyone, Robertson said.

Some people in marginalized communities or the more vulnerable may not have regular or no access to health care, she added.

“We need to think about distribution more broadly,” Robertson said, adding that the government could reuse the idea of ​​mail order, or distribute masks for convenience in places like grocery stores, churches or public transportation.

Despite the caveats, Robertson said the rollout still appears to have net benefits. It could save people some money, or minimize the hassle of trying to authenticate masks on their own.

How to tell if your mask is real or fake

“There’s only so much protection when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t wearing masks,” Robertson said. “Even if workers try to put the proper protections in place for them, it puts them in a very vulnerable position.”

Reducing costs is especially important for low-paying jobs and for reaching people who don’t wear masks while on the job. That’s common in Nashville, where Robertson is based, she said.

“The southeastern United States has some of the worst mask policies,” Robertson added. “The southeastern United States is also the place with the highest density of black population in the United States, and in these fairness considerations, I have not forgotten that.”

Activists call for more free masks and tests

MPA’s Kristin Urquiza, who lost her parents to COVID-19 in 2020, founded a grassroots group called Marked By COVID to advocate for better public health policy. The group is running a campaign called Dear Zients, and they are calling on White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients to provide people with better access to testing and masks.

The letter calls on Zients to go beyond the current rollout to provide an “adequate and ongoing supply” of free tests and masks, and to develop data-driven policies for proper use.

“The goal of this campaign is not just free masks and tests, but continued free masks and tests,” Dr Deshira Wallace, MSPH, Marked By COVID’s public health adviser, told VigorTip. “If we can get enough of these free Even with low-cost testing and continuously accessible masks, we don’t have long queues and delays in getting these resources.”

She added that the free mask initiative is just a “band-aid” to address the current pandemic response.

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

Notes on wearing the N95

In order for the N95 to function properly and prevent transmission, it needs to be worn and handled properly.

Dina Velocci, DNP, CRNA, APRN, president of the American Academy of Nurses Anesthesiology (AANA), told VigorTip that the public may not know how to properly wear and handle N95s. Healthcare professionals tend to be aware of N95 guidelines, but people who have never used masks before may not have received enough information, she added.

“As healthcare providers, we all have N95s fit tested because masks don’t even work if you have any leaks,” Veloci said.

She added that in addition to fit testing, N95s should also be considered disposable masks and people should not touch their faces or masks when putting them on or taking them off.

How to put on and take off the N95

N95 masks come with top and bottom straps. To put on a mask properly, touch the straps, not the mask itself, and attach the bottom straps first, Velocci said. Once put on, make sure the mask has a good fit and seal. One way to do this at home is to spray Febreze into the air. If you can smell Febreze, you need to adjust the mask.

To take off, pull the top strap without touching the mask, Velocci said. Ideally, masks should be discarded rather than reused.

Welloch said she was disappointed by the lack of clear, truthful guidance from the White House on proper cover-ups.

“I hope we can really follow evidence-based medicine and really teach people how to do good techniques to prevent themselves from spreading infection,” Velochie said.

Without that, “you think you’re doing something, but the truth 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 easier-to-use and lower-quality masks designed to protect people from aerosolized droplets.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), airborne transmission includes smaller and more persistent droplets than droplet transmission. According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 transmission is often referred to as droplet transmission, but airborne transmission can also be involved. The organization recommends N95 masks to those caring for someone with COVID-19.

Shruti Gohil, MD, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Health, told VigorTip that while N95s have been shown to provide a higher level of protection than other alternatives, they may not be necessary for the public.

Gohir said she was shocked by the White House’s decision to prioritize masks over other public health measures, rather than debating the types of masks that should be distributed.

“I think the response to the COVID pandemic has a bigger priority,” Gohil said, adding that the government could have poured money into local health facilities familiar with the needs of the community.

Mask distribution is still helpful to some extent, but it will be much more successful early in the pandemic, she said.

“It’s all about timing,” Gohil said. “Now, in my opinion, we do have other challenges to address.”

what does this mean to you

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

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means that you may have updated information as you read this article. For the latest updates on COVID-19, visit our Coronavirus news page.