As cases of COVID-19’s omicron variant continue to surge in parts if the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending N95 masks as a protective measure against the highly contagious virus.
But what exactly are N95 masks, where can you buy them and when can you find them for free?
What are N95 masks?
An N95 mask, also known as an N95 respirator, is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.
N95 particulate respirators are arranged for a photograph in Hong Kong, China, on Monday, April 6, 2020 (Credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
According to the CDC, the mask is called an N95 because it is the U.S. standard that requires masks to be able to filter out at least 95% of very small particles — including droplets from the coronavirus.
Difference between KN95 and N95 masks
With such similar-sounding names, it can be confusing to understand the difference between N95 and KN95 masks.
Earlier this month, the CDC updated its masking guidelines stating respirators such as N95 and KN95 "offer the highest level of protection". The CDC also clarified that people can choose these type masks, removing concerns related to supply shortages for N95s.
N95 or KN95 masks are more widely available now than at any other time during the pandemic, though they are often more costly than less-protective surgical masks or cloth masks.
In short, N95 masks are the U.S. standards for respirator masks, while KN95 masks are the Chinese standards for masks.
But, according to the CDC, about 60% of KN95 respirators the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH) evaluated during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 did not meet the requirements that they intended to meet.
N95 masks are regulated and approved by NIOSH, but the agency was informed that many legitimate manufacturers in China have been counterfeited. In such cases, NIOSH has no way of verifying which products are counterfeit and which are authentic.
In that case, it’s can difficult to know which KN95s are fakes.
Where to find N95 masks
While N95 masks were typically worn by medical workers and employees at high-risk jobs, President Biden announced he would provide 400 million N95 masks to pharmacies and community health centers in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, it may be challenging to locate these type of masks — and authentic ones.
Knock-off N95 masks are also increasing online as well, so your best bet is to buy from familiar and trusted retailers and vendors.
Another way to ensure that you're receiving NIOSH-approved masks is to get one directly from a healthcare professional.
Where to find free N95 masks
Next week, the Biden administration will begin making 400 million N95 masks available for free to Americans.
This means every person who visits a community health center or participating retailers, including Costco, CVS and Walmart, will be given free N95s.
The White House announced Wednesday that the masks will come from the government's Strategic National Stockpile, which has more than 750 million of the highly protective masks on hand. The masks will be available for pickup at pharmacies and community health centers across the country. They will begin shipping this week for distribution starting late next week, the White House said.
The government said that "to ensure broad access for all Americans, there will be three masks available per person."
This will be the largest distribution of free masks by the federal government to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In early 2020, then-President Donald Trump's administration considered and then shelved plans to send masks to all Americans at their homes.
President Joe Biden embraced the initiative after facing mounting criticism this month over the inaccessibility — both in supply and cost — of N95 masks as the highly transmissible omicron variant swept across the country.
Bottom line: The best mask "is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.