South Jordan pharmacist Tad Jolley said Wednesday he doesn’t know what to tell customers asking about the free N95 masks the White House is distributing to pharmacies and other locations nationwide to help battle the surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the incredibly transmissible omicron variant.

That’s because Jolley said he hasn’t heard anything yet from the federal government about when — or even if — he should expect to receive some of the 400 million masks from the Strategic National Stockpile that started shipping out late last week.

“Nothing at all. The only thing I’ve heard is what I see in the media that says they’re sending out all these masks and you’re going to be able to get them free at pharmacies,” said Jolley, owner of Jolley’s Pharmacy Redwood and a member of the Utah Pharmacy Association board.

He said other pharmacists in Utah are still in the dark about the giveaway, too.

“We had a meeting this morning and that was one of the things we talked about, does anyone know what’s going on with those. And nobody had any ideas,” Jolley said. “But some of the other pharmacists said, yeah, we’re getting that question, ‘Have you got a free mask for me?’”

Does omicron mean a new phase is coming for the COVID-19 pandemic?

Some of the independent and chain pharmacies participating in the federal COVID-19 vaccination program have already starting receiving masks, including several Walmart, Hy-Vee and Meijer locations that were able to start handing them out last Friday, according to White House COVID-⁠19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients.

In Utah, some Walgreens pharmacies are expected to begin offering masks on Friday, spokesman Fraser Engerman said, “and will continue on a rolling basis in the days and weeks following.” Signage at participating stores will indicate mask availability and more information should be posted in the coming days on, he said.

“We are pleased to partner with the administration to make N95 masks in varying sizes available free of charge at participating Walgreens locations while supplies last. Customers and patients can pick up a maximum of three masks per person,” Engerman said.

Zients said during a White House COVID-19 briefing Wednesday that the program launched a week ago “is off to a very fast start.”

Using the same local pharmacies and federal community health centers that offer COVID-19 vaccinations was deemed the quickest way to distribute what’s been called the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history, he said, even though free COVID-19 test kits can be requested from the government online.

“I think the decision to use those channels to get masks out immediately is the right decision. Across the next couple of weeks, the program will hit full strength,” Zients said, promising the free masks will be available “at tens of thousands of convenient sites” around the country.

A young woman wears a KN95 mask in downtown Salt Lake City on Jan. 26, 2022.
A young woman wears a KN95 mask in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

While the Utah Department of Health is not involved in the Biden administration’s mask distribution, the state does have a stockpile of about 16.6 million face coverings, including just under 1.8 million KN95 masks and 2.8 million of the highest quality N95 masks, state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said.

The masks are available to any public entities, Hudachko said. Last August, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced a million masks were being sent to schools in the state to keep students safe from COVID-19 as they returned to class.

Time for another COVID-19 booster shot? Not in the U.S. — yet

The state stockpile is also where the Salt Lake County Health Department is getting the high-quality respirators that are still being handed out for free at libraries and senior centers even after the Utah Legislature recently ended mask mandates imposed earlier this month in Salt Lake and Summit counties.

So far, about 200,000 have been handed out, county health department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said.

“We’re not worried about running out is what I can tell you,” Rupp said. “In fact, today I’m going to be reaching out to the municipalities in Salt Lake County, each city, and asking them if they would like to have respirators at their city hall or other municipal locations. That’s not in place yet.”

Jolley said he has a few N95 masks for sale at his pharmacy, but demand isn’t what it once was.

“It’s come down since the Legislature struck down the mask mandate. Prior to that, we got a lot of requests,” he said. But Jolley said the federal mask distribution program is already renewing interest in the high-quality masks. “Anything free, people come in.”