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Free N95 masks arriving at pharmacies and stores around the country

The masks are among the 400 million that are being distributed nationwide to combat the spread of the omicron variant.

WASHINGTON — Pharmacies and health centers around the country have begun distributing the first of the 400 million N95 masks the White House is sending out to combat the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.

President Joe Biden announced the initiative last week, sending out masks from the Strategic National Stockpile as health experts stressed the importance of high-quality face coverings to protect against the omicron variant.

"We know that these masks provide better protection than cloth masks," Dr. Tom Inglesby, the administration's Covid testing coordinator, said last week.

The Department of Health and Human Services said the masks would be available at "thousands of pharmacies and community health centers nationwide." The agency described the effort as "the largest deployment by the Strategic National Stockpile to date" and said "it's also the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history."

A White House official said that Mills Civic Hy-Vee of West Des Moines, Iowa, began distributing masks Friday and that Hy-Vee expected to have masks available at its 200-plus stores across Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Nebraska soon.

The masks arrived with flyers encouraging people to "mask up and maximize your protection."

The Meijer supermarket chain has also received masks and will make them available at its stores across Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin, the official said. The N95 masks will be in boxes set on tables near the Meijer Greeter stands at store entrances.

Masks are expected to begin arriving at Southeastern Grocers locations as early as Friday, and they will be available at the company's Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie in-store pharmacies.

A spokesperson for Walgreens told NBC Chicago that the chain expects to start giving out masks at some locations by Friday, as well. "Participating stores will have signage indicating mask availability," the spokesperson said.

Kroger, meanwhile, tweeted Monday that it has "free N95 masks at stores" with a pharmacy. CVS and Walmart have said they expect to be offering the masks soon.

The White House said people will be limited to three masks per person to ensure broad access. It's unclear how many have been distributed to date.

Jeff Zients, the White House Covid-19 response coordinator, said late last week that "we've already shipped millions of these masks out and across the country, and in the coming days, masks will begin to be available at local pharmacies and community health centers."

The White House has said the administration hopes to have the program fully operational by early February.

The White House has also put together a plan to mail out hundreds of millions of free Covid-19 home tests — up to four per household — to people who want them.