The Transportation Security Administration, following the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will extend its mask mandate for airplanes through mid-April. Once again, the CDC is behind the curve.
The TSA announcement comes as virtually all states and major cities have dropped their indoor mask mandates in response to plunging numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. It also comes a week after the CDC eased its mask guidance for communities which overnight reduced recommendations for indoor masking from roughly 95 percent to about 37 percent of US counties. The numbers have only improved since — CDC’s latest update shows that 98 percent of Americans who live in 94 percent of US counties need not mask.
CDC’s guidelines moved from measuring community transmission to measuring community levels of disease — how much strain the virus is placing on a community’s health-care system as indicated by new COVID hospitalizations, the share of hospital beds occupied by patients admitted for COVID and new COVID cases . The new guidelines recognized that with the predominant, highly contagious but generally mild, Omicron variant, measuring transmission became much less important.
Have virus, will travel
When asked why airports and airlines should maintain mask mandates even if the cities in which they’re located have abandoned them, White House press secretary Jen Psaki answered that air travelers aren’t “static.” People traveling from a high COVID-19 zone could arrive at low-level COVID-19 areas, still posing a transmission risk. That sounds like an argument for banning travel rather than a justification for masks on planes.
The rationale in the new CDC guidelines for recommending masks in the minority of communities that are classified as medium or high level was to alleviate the strain on medical resources in those communities, not limit the spread to other communities. Even if the new rating guidelines roughly correlate with transmission risk, that would, at most, suggest prescribing mask wearing for people on flights originating in cities with medium or high levels instead of maintaining them for all flights — which, as noted above, is a very small group of communities.
The need for and efficacy of masks on airplanes has never been especially clear. Air quality on board an aircraft is much better than most other indoor environments. Half of the onboard air supplied is fresh air from outside and the other half is passed through High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters that are more than 99.9 percent effective at removing viruses. Cabin air is refreshed 20-30 times an hour, 10 times more than in most office buildings, and the air flow is from top to bottom, not along the length of the aircraft.
What’s the delay?
Even prior to the onset of the Omicron surge, a systematic review concluded that it is unclear if masks prevent in-flight transmission of COVID since most studies are of low quality and “did not provide clear data on the masking of passengers and crew.” The rationale for in-flight masking is even less compelling now since Omicron has spread easily despite mask mandates.
Perhaps, the most disturbing thing about the TSA/CDC announcement was Psaki’s explanation that the CDC will first “endeavor” to engage in “consultations” about new travel guidelines “between now and April.” Did the CDC have another pandemic to attend for the past few months? Was there something that impeded revising the travel standards at the same time as the community mask standards revision?
The TSA and CDC should complete their “consultations” quickly. Airline masking has not only been an uncomfortable inconvenience. It has led to several contentious confrontations between unruly passengers and aircrews which endanger the lives of everyone on board. It should not take another month to ease 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.