​​​COLUMBUS, Ohio — Free N95 masks are arriving at grocery stores and pharmacies through a federal program that is expected to be in full swing early next month.

What You Need To Know

  • Free N95 masks already available at select locations

  • Officials said 400 million masks to be distributed nationwide

  • Companies, including Kroger, still await shipments

Walgreens said that as of Friday the masks were available at two Ohio stores in Cincinnati and Cleveland, and will arrive at many more locations soon.

“Masks have begun to rollout to the first wave of stores and will continue to rollout into additional stores in the coming days and weeks,” the company said in a statement.

Federal officials said they are sending 400 million N95 masks to pharmacies and health centers, calling it the largest distribution of personal protective equipment in the country’s history. The participating locations will hand out three masks per person.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released earlier in the month said higher-grade medical masks offer the most protection against the virus. 

“Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection,” the agency said.

State health officials’ recommendation is that residents wear a “medical-grade mask,” particularly in crowded indoor environments.

Multiple-layered surgical masks, which are more loose fitting than N95s, are still considered a good choice, Dr. Brian Kaminski, vice president of quality and patient safety at the Toledo-based health system ProMedica, said during an Ohio Department of Health news conference Thursday.

Meijer was one of the first retailers to make the masks available, federal officials said.

Earlier this week, Meijer said it had received 3 million masks, which it is distributing at the entrances of its stores.

CVS received masks on Thursday and was beginning to make them available in stores, officials said. 

Danielle Black, 40, of New Albany, said she sometimes wears an N95 mask if she’s going to be in a really crowded area, or if she’s visiting someone at higher-risk. 

“This last surge, if I had to go indoors for a long period of time with lots of people, I would wear one,” she said. “Or if you have, like, a grandma and grandpa and you wanted to run something over to their house, you might want to put it on.”

Black said she bought a box of the masks months ago, but she is glad she will be able to get new ones for free. She said she plans to pick them up when she goes grocery shopping at Kroger.

“A lot of people can't find any and they don't know where to go to get an N95,” she said. “This will be great for people who can't afford them as well.” 

Kroger has not yet received its supply, the company said Friday.

“At this time, we are awaiting our distribution of masks from the Strategic National Stockpile and are prepared to make them available to the public as soon as we receive them,” spokesperson Jenifer Moore said.

Rite Aid and Walmart said they will offer the masks in their stores across the country by early February. 

Other Ohio locations participating in the federal program include Costco, Giant Eagle and Health Mart Pharmacies.

The distribution of free masks is part of the federal government's push to make tools to combat COVID-19 accessible to people, which includes testing as well as the masks. Through a separate federal distribution effort, U.S. Postal Service facilities in Ohio are processing free at-home test kits that will be shipped out to residents who’ve ordered them.