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Travel Mask Mandate Updates and Infectious Disease Expert’s Opinions

            Some people are cheering about the TSA mask mandate being lifted while others are confused and concerned. Let’s break down what is happening and how it could affect you.

            On April 18th, United States District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Florida made the decision that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was overstepping their authority with the mask mandate for public transportation. The judge believes that CDC did not follow the correct process and procedures for the mask mandate. Due to her decision the mandatory mask mandate was lifted. This allows each travel company to make their own decision about requiring masks. Some of the major travel companies that have made masks optional are American, United, Southwest, Frontier, Delta, Uber, Lyft, and Amtrak. The CDC still recommends that people wear masks on public transportation. The Biden administration is appealing the judge’s decision but in the meantime masks are optional for travelers and up to the travel companies to enforce if wanted.

The mandate being lifted has left some people confused. In the week previous to the decision, it was in the news that the CDC had extended the transportation mask mandate due to needing more information on the newest omicron strain BA.2.

According to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review from April 22nd, “In recent weeks, BA.2.12.1…has emerged and is increasing in prevalence in parts of the country…Some early evidence suggests BA.2.12.1 is increasing in variant proportion faster than other Omicron sublineages. CDC is working to better understand BA.2.12.1, how it spreads, and how well existing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 work against it”.

National Public Radio (NPR) spoke with infectious disease experts on their opinion on the travel mask mandate being lifted. Most of them agreed that they plan to continue to wear masks during travel but that risks vary depending on the type of travel. You must consider how many passengers there are, how close the passengers are seated to each other, and air flow during the transportation.

            During air travel, large aircrafts have good ventilation systems and exchange air every few minutes. Even with the air constantly circulating you are at risk if you are seated close to a person who is infected and not wearing a mask. It is also important to consider the airport, meaning the entire process you have to take before and after your flight. There are many occurrences where it would be possible to get infected.

            If you are using subway transportation, the good news is that the subway systems in New York City and San Francisco were studied and found to have good ventilation. The bad news is that this is not enough to prevent infection when there are many riders crammed into a small space. Regarding buses which usually have poor ventilation, if the windows are open that helps with air circulation but this is not always possible and it may not help if there are many people on the bus. The same goes for cabs and car sharing. Your best option is to open the windows to help with air circulation or run the air conditioning on high.

            Although the travel mask mandate has been lifted for the time being, it does not mean that you cannot contract COVID during travel. It has become a personal decision whether or not to continue wearing masks during transportation. If you are concerned about contracting COVID, are immunocompromised, or have a loved one who is immunocompromised, you should strongly consider still wearing a mask during travel.

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Covid Data Tracker Weekly Review. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/

Stone, W., & Godoy, M. (2022, April 22). Here’s why you might still want to wear masks on public transport. NPR. Retrieved April 25, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/04/22/1094183597/travel-mask-mandate-risk