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‘Keep them handy.’ As mask rules are dropped, free government masks become available at stores

Free government masks at a grocery store in Mississippi.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Even as state and local governments are dropping mask mandates as the Omicron surge declines, free N95 masks provided by the federal government are becoming available at stores.

Walgreens spokeswoman Karen May said in an e-mail that she did not have details on the number of masks that have been received and distributed in Massachusetts, but she said customers should check the company’s N95 mask program store locator for availability.

The website says 19 Massachusetts Walgreens stores from Dorchester to Springfield have masks available. “Masks have been sent to the first wave of stores and will rollout into additional stores in the coming days and weeks,” the website said.

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Tara Burke, a spokeswoman for CVS, which is also participating in the mask giveaway, did not have numbers of masks distributed or details on the stores offering them.

”The supply of N95 masks we received from the federal government is being distributed to nearly 9,800 CVS Pharmacy locations on a rolling basis,” she said. “While we are shipping masks to our stores as quickly as possible, some of our pharmacies will receive masks before others.”

The Biden administration announced last month it would distribute 400 million free N95 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile, the government’s reserve of emergency medical supplies. The masks began shipping from the stockpile Jan. 20, and will be available at thousands of locations, the US Department of Health and Human Services says. The masks will be distributed to most pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, as well as community health centers, the agency said. Each person is limited to three masks.

The arrival of the high-quality masks may puzzle some people since it comes at a time when requirements are being loosened at the state and local level.

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But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend universal masking in schools and for everyone in indoor public spaces, even for the vaccinated and boosted, in areas of substantial and high transmission. Around 99 percent of US counties currently fall into the high transmission category.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said Wednesday at a White House briefing that her agency is working on new guidance for the states on masking. She said officials were “encouraged by the current trends,” but hospitalization and death rates were still high, so “we’re not there yet.”

Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious diseases physician at Stanford University who has been an outspoken advocate of high-quality masks as a way to curb the pandemic, said the advent of the free masks “from a public policy and health communications standpoint ... is very confusing for the public.”

But he urged people to take advantage of the offer.

“I would strongly advise people to pick up the N95s and keep them handy — you will need them again, whether in a few months or during the next winter,” he said in an e-mail. “The SARS CoV 2 virus — and other respiratory viruses — will still be blocked by these high filtration masks and these viruses aren’t going away.”

“As incidence of disease goes down, restrictions will be pulled back as they have been,” he said. “The challenge is that the virus moves very quickly — much faster than our politicians.”

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The mask distribution program isn’t the only one getting into gear just as the latest COVID surge begins to wane. The Biden administration also announced last month Americans could begin ordering free rapid, at-home coronavirus tests.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.




Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.