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How to use the free N95 masks and rapid tests now available in San Diego

No-cost COVID-19 rapid tests and N95 masks are now available in San Diego. KPBS Health Reporter Matt Hoffman has more on how to best use them.

Free hospital quality face masks and rapid at-home tests are becoming widely available in the region, and public health officials say people should take advantage.

No-cost COVID-19 rapid tests and N95 masks are now available to San Diegans, but not all local pharmacies have the masks yet and the ones that do report they are going fast.

"My recommendation at this time is if you’re getting (a N95 mask), go ahead and use it," said Kaiser Permanente San Diego's Dr. William Tseng.

Tseng said, in terms of masks, N95s offer the best protection. They are used by hospital staff working directly with COVID-19 patients and the facial coverings can prevent virus transmission as well as infection.


"The best time to use it is really during times when you know you’re going to be exposed to COVID patients," Tseng said. "There’s a crowded area or a lot of people."

Washing your hands before using a mask and a tight fit is key, but how long can they be worn?

In a COVID-19 hospital setting, the masks go in the trash after one use Tseng said.

The medical recommendation is people not use them for more than five days but how long people wear them matters.

"The duration of use is more important than the frequency," Tseng said. "Meaning, hey if I use it for a five minute grocery trip or going out to do an errand versus if I wear it an entire day."


RELATED: How to get at home COVID tests reimbursed or delivered for free

In addition to the N95s, free rapid tests are available to be ordered through the U.S. Postal Service and insurance reimbursements are available for people who buy them.

"I think it’s a great thing because if you’re able to detect the disease earlier we can do something about," Tseng said referring to early intervention COVID-19 treatments.

The at-home tests are extremely effective if used within seven days of symptoms starting, according to Tseng.

The tests do expire and manufactures warn they should only be used before that date.

Something else to note, rapid at-home tests are not counted in the county's COVID-19 data. Tseng said those who test positive with a rapid test should let their doctor know.

"The reason it's important for you to report it is because we have medications now that we can treat you with so you don't get sick, ever end up in a hospital or ever end up dying from this disease," he said.

While tools to prevent and detect the virus are more widespread, Tseng said, vaccination is still the best protection.

"It (vaccination) can also limit the spread in your body — contain the virus early on so you don't get a big viral load and don’t transmit as much. So you also help prevent the spread."