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Where to find free N95 masks and how to get free COVID-19 tests in Northeast Ohio

The first of the government's free N-95 masks are popping up at local pharmacies, while people are seeing the free COVID-19 tests they ordered arrive in the mailbox.

CLEVELAND — After getting vaccinated, the best tools in the COVID-19 toolbox continue to be masking and testing. And finally, getting them for free is becoming easier.

Meijer seems to be the first place to find one – or 3 per person  – of the 400 million N95 masks The White House is shipping out from the Strategic National Stockpile.

We picked up ours at the Meijer location in Mentor. There’s no process. You just walk in and pick up a pile from the table near the grocery entrance.

A Meijer spokeperson told us: “Each of our stores received thousands of N95 masks and, depending on demand, some of our stores are moving through their supply more quickly than others, which is to be expected. We expect to obtain more supply in the future.”

Here is what we are hearing about N95 mask availability from other Northeast Ohio retailers:

  • CVS said its stores, including its pharmacy locations inside Target, will have them on a rolling basis starting Thursday, Jan. 27. A spokesperson says signs will be posted to indicate N95 mask availability.
  • Walgreens expects to have them Friday, Jan. 28, and will also use signs to show whether they’re available.
  • Discount Drug Mart is waiting for delivery of its masks to the 76 Ohio communities it serves.
  • Walmart says the masks will be available by the second week of February near the front of its stores and also Sam’s Clubs locations.

“Although the government has said you should use an N95 mask, most people can't tolerate N95 masks,” said Dr. Shelly Senders. Senders is the founder and CEO of Cleveland’s Senders Pediatrics. “If you look at the CDC’s recommendation, they said, you should pick a mask that you can wear all of the time, and that fits you appropriately.”

Dr. Senders says for most, that can be a standard surgical mask. “If you can stick your fingers in [at your cheeks], it doesn't fit properly. If you can't…you don't need an N95 or a KN95. That mask should be just fine for you.”

He recommends an ASTM 2 or 3 surgical mask or a legit KN95 or an actual N95. But the practice’s newsletter shares: “Do not pick a poorly fitting non-breathable N95 over a well-fitting, breathable ASTM 2 or 3 surgical mask.”

Technically, NIOSH approved N-95 masks don't exist for kids, though you can find kid sizes of the foreign equivalents. Dr. Senders stressed that kids really need a mask that fits best -- but they do have a list of vetted KF94 and KN95 options the practice points to, from the research of aerosol expert Aaron Collins, the so-called Mask Nerd. It’s linked here. 

When it comes to rapid at-home testing, you can register online to have four free tests mailed to each household by clicking here. You can also call the hotline, at 800-232-0233.

RELATED: Call this number if you need help ordering an at-home COVID-19 test kit from the government

The White House is also promising 8 tests free for every American each month now, with private insurance companies picking up the tab.

Some providers like CVS Caremark or United Health Group can get you a free test in-person at a participating pharmacy counter.

For most others, it’s pay up front and get reimbursed. And it can be complicated. Some insurers allow you to submit a receipt online. Others, like Medical Mutual, require it to be mailed, along with the UPC code from the box.

It’s important to note: Medicare is not paying for at-home tests. For general guidance on the program, you can click here.

Here is a list of many major carriers and how they are handling testing reimbursement:

  • Aetna - Aetna allows for receipts to be submitted online.
  • Anthem - Participants can submit a receipt online to be reimbursed.
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan - BCBSM requires a copy of the receipt to be mailed along with this form.
  • Cigna - Cigna requires claims to be mailed or faxed using the attached form
  • Caresource - Caresource says to keep your receipt and test packaging in order to file a claim with CareSource for reimbursement, but offers no process yet.
  • Ambetter from Buckeye Health Plan - Ambetter allows you to pick up a test in person from a network pharmacy, or mail in a form for reimbursement.
  • CVS Caremark - Participants can pick up a test at the pharmacy counter of Caremark Network pharmacies. They can also reimburse a purchase with a receipt by logging in online.
  • Humana - Humana members can be reimbursed by mail with a copy of the receipt and UPC code, or have the pharmacy process the test kit as a claim directly.
  • Medical Mutual - Medical Mutual requires mailing a reimbursement claim, using its form, an original receipt and UPC bar code from the packaging of each test. 
  • United Health Group - United has partnered with Walmart, Sam’s Club and Rite Aid to provide free tests in person with a member ID card. 

The testing push may be coming a little late as cases in Ohio decline, but without knowing where the pandemic will be in three to six months, Dr. Senders says, why not stock up?

“It is empowering people to take responsibility for their lives. There have been such surges and, we've had people waiting around the block to be tested,” he said.

“I think this is a story that is evolving, and we haven't gotten to the end of the story,” he said. “There's some people that want the end to be today, and there's some people that want it to go on until we can prevent every little illness. And our job is to strike a balance.”

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