How to Get Your Free N95 Masks and At-Home COVID Tests From the Government
If you've been looking for COVID-19 tests and proper protective gear to no avail, you're in luck: Americans can now order free at-home COVID tests from the government—and the ability to get free N95 masks from pharmacies or community health centers isn't far off.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration launched the website COVIDTests.gov—a day earlier than expected—allowing all Americans to order four at-home COVID-19 tests for free. Adding to that, the White House announced in a tweet on Wednesday that the Biden administration would also make 400 million N95 masks available to Americans for free.
The free tests and masks are part of the continued response to the current COVID-19 surge, caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant. According to CDC data, the US has seen an average of 782,766 new cases per day for the past week—a 33% increase from the week before.
These measures are necessary in order to give Americans more access to high-quality PPE and safety initiatives—but you may still have questions as to how exactly you can obtain these free tests and masks. Here's what you need to know about how to order your free at-home COVID tests, where to pick up free N95 masks, and when you can expect to have them in hand.
What to know about free at-home COVID tests
How to order the free tests
The process of getting your free COVID-19 tests is pretty simple—but we'll break it down step-by-step for you here, just in case.
- Visit COVIDTests.gov. The website is currently up and running.
- Click the "Order Free At-Home Tests" button, which will direct you to a special United States Postal Service (USPS) website.
- Enter your contact information and a shipping address. It's helpful, but not necessary, to enter your email address as well—this will send you tracking information to keep tabs on when your tests are shipped.
- Click the "Check Out Now" button once you've input all of your information. There's no need to select the amount of tests or add anything to your cart—every household gets four tests; the USPS site already knows that.
Something the government doesn't currently have answers for right now: How people who are unhoused or experiencing homelessness can order these free tests. "You need a residential address to receive the free tests from the federal government," Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Health.
Until the government provides more information on those situations, people who don't have a mailing address should connect with their local health department or community health center to receive free COVID testing.
When you can get the free tests
According to the COVIDtests.gov website, the at-home tests will "typically ship" within 7–12 days of placing your order. When you click through to the special USPS page, that website says orders will begin shipping in late January. Neither page gives a specific timeline on how long it will take the tests to actually show up on your doorstep.
This is where entering your email along with your name and address comes into play: Once your order ships, you will receive an email with an estimated delivery date and tracking number—that will allow you to track your at-home tests in real time, as they make their way to you.
In an interview with ABC News, Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, said that once the tests are in the "regular mail stream," they can take about 2–5 days to reach doorsteps. That will, of course, depend on the government's ability to supply the USPS with those tests: ABC News also reported that an official with the Department of Health and Human Services told Congress that 500 million tests would go out over the course of the next 60 days.
According to Amesh A. Adalja, MD, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, your best bet is to order the tests as soon as you possibly can, to avoid any potential delays in shipping.
What kind of tests are available?
By now you know that there are tons of different at-home COVID-19 tests available for purchase. According to COVIDTests.gov, the tests available through this program are "FDA-authorized at-home rapid antigen tests." However, the government adds that "you will not be able to choose the brand you order as part of this program."
These at-home tests detect small viral proteins called antigens, which implies a current viral infection, according to the CDC. The test are currently only authorized for nasopharyngeal use—that means they're nasal swab tests. Though they're less sensitive than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, they're still fairly accurate, especially when someone is experiencing symptoms, per The Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center.
COVIDTests.gov also clarifies that the tests can give results within 30 minutes, can be taken anywhere, work with or without COVID symptoms, and work whether or not you're up to date on your COVID vaccines.
What to know about free N95 masks
Where to get the free masks
The details are still pretty scant here, but according to the White House tweet on Wednesday, "N95 masks will be available for the public to pick up at tens of thousands of local pharmacies and health centers."
Further reporting by NPR said that the masks will be available through pharmacies in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which includes major grocery stores (like Kroger, Publix, and Walmart) and retail pharmacy chains (like CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid).
The masks—all 400 million—are coming from the Strategic National Stockpile, which is part of the federal medical response infrastructure (basically, this allows the government to supply states, tribal nations, territories, and metropolitan areas with necessary equipment during public health emergencies).
In a statement provided to CNN, a White House official said that N95 masks will be limited to three per person. That these masks are specifically N95 respirators is important here: On January 14 the CDC updated its masking guidelines, recommending that people wear the most protective mask they can—and that N95 respirators provide the "highest level of protection."
When you can get the free masks
The White House said in a statement on Wednesday that the government would begin shipping the N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers by the end of this week.
The N95 mask program will be "fully up and running by early February," according to a statement the Department of Health and Human Services shared with Health.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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