Registered nurse Jessalynn Dest pulls on a new N95 mask as indentations remain from another she had just removed after leaving a COVID-19 patient room in the acute care unit of Harborview Medical Center, Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in Seattle. Credit: Elaine Thompson / AP

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mainers will soon be able to get free, high-quality masks from the federal government with virus cases surging.

About 400 million N95 masks are set to be distributed to the public from the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal repository of critical medical supplies. Earlier in the pandemic, medical-grade masks in the stockpile were reserved for health care workers only. But greater supply of masks has allowed the government to make them available to the general public with the more contagious omicron variant now spreading.

N95 masks give the best protection against COVID-19 because they are better at filtering small particles and generally fit tighter to the face than cloth or surgical masks. In medical settings, N95 masks are often fitted to maximize efficiency. That will not be the case with masks distributed to the public. Even without that, they still provide better protection to cloth masks.

Masks will be distributed at certain health centers and pharmacies participating in the federal retail pharmacy program, according to the White House. In Maine, that includes Walmart, Walgreens and CVS.

For now, only adult masks will be available, with up to three masks allowed per person. N95 masks can generally be reused, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends storing them for several days in paper bags between uses to decontaminate. Do not attempt to wash the masks, as that can damage them.

Initial shipments from the national stockpile went out last week, according to federal authorities, with masks set to become available in some locations this week and more in February. A spokesperson for Walgreens said the company was still finalizing the program’s operational details and would have more information once the masks were available.