CDC’s silly stalling on flight masks

The Transportation Security Administration, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will extend its mask mandate for aircraft until mid-April. Once again, the CDC is behind the curve.

The TSA announcement comes like virtually every state and major city dropped their indoor mask mandates in response to the declining number of COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths. It also comes a week after the CDC eased its mask guidelines for communities, which overnight reduced indoor masking recommendations from about 95 percent to about 37 percent of U.S. counties. The numbers have only gotten better since — the CDC’s latest update shows 98 percent of Americans, living in 94 percent of US counties, don’t need a mask.

The CDC’s guidelines shifted from measuring community transmission to measuring community disease levels — how much the virus is taking a toll on a community’s health care system, as evidenced by new COVID hospitalizations, the percentage of hospital beds admitted by COVID-19 patients are occupied, and new COVID cases . The new guidelines recognized that with the predominance of the highly contagious but generally mild Omicron variant, measuring transmission became much less important.

The TSA will extend its mask mandate on airplanes until mid-April.
The TSA will extend its mask mandate on airplanes until mid-April.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire

Got virus, will travel

When asked why airports and airlines should maintain mask requirements even when the cities they are in have waived them, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied that air travelers are not “static.” People traveling from a high-COVID-19 zone could end up in low-COVID-19 areas, still posing a risk of transmission. That sounds more like an argument for a travel ban than a justification for masks on planes.

The rationale in the new CDC guidelines for recommending masks in minority communities classified as intermediate or high tier was to reduce the strain on medical resources in those communities, not limit spread to other communities . Even if the new assessment guidelines were roughly correlated with transmission risk, it would at most suggest mandating the wearing of masks for people on flights originating in medium or high value cities, rather than maintaining them on all flights – which, as noted above, is a is very small group of communities.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented that air travelers are not
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented that air travelers are not “static.”
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

The necessity and effectiveness of masks on airplanes has never been particularly clear. The air quality on board an airplane is much better than in most other indoor areas. Half of the air supplied on board is fresh air from outside, the other half is passed through HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, which are more than 99.9 percent effective in removing viruses. The cabin air is refreshed 20 to 30 times an hour, 10 times more frequently than most office buildings, and airflow is top-to-bottom, not down the length of the aircraft.

what is the delay

Even before the start of Omicron Strike, a systematic review concluded that it is unclear whether masks prevent in-flight transmission of COVID, as most studies are of low quality and “do not provide clear data on masking of passengers and crew”. The rationale for masking in flight is now even less convincing given that Omicron has spread easily despite mask requirements.

Masking on airplanes has led to in-flight confrontations.
Masking on airplanes has led to in-flight confrontations.

Perhaps most troubling about the TSA/CDC announcement was Psaki’s statement that the CDC would first “seek” “consultation” about new travel guidelines “between now and April.” Has the CDC had another pandemic to deal with in the last few months? Was there something that was holding back the travel standards overhaul at the same time as the community mask standards overhaul?

TSA and CDC should conclude their “consultation” quickly. Airplane masking wasn’t just an awkward inconvenience. It has led to several contentious altercations between unruly passengers and flight crews, endangering the lives of everyone on board. It shouldn’t take another month to relax these increasingly irrational regulations.

dr Joel Zinberg, MD, is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Director of Public Health and Wellness at the Paragon Health Institute. CDC’s silly stalling on flight masks


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