CDC extends transportation mask mandate until May 3

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Travelers will need to continue to wear protective face masks at airports, on planes, trains, buses and transit hubs, as the CDC is extending the mask requirement for travelers.

Updated 3:00 p.m. EDT

The Biden administration is extending its face mask requirement for public transit for another 15 days. That means travelers will still need to mask up in airports, planes, buses, trains and at transit hubs until May 3.

The mask travel requirement had been set to expire this coming Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is keeping in place its mask order “in order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity,” according to an agency spokesperson.

The spokesperson also confirmed that the Transportation Security Administration, which handles enforcement of the order, is extending its security directive and emergency amendment for another 15 days.

The decision was made in response to the increasing spread of the omicron subvariant in the U.S. and an increase in the 7-day moving average of cases, which have risen by around 25% over the last two weeks nationally. Certain states are seeing much larger increases in new cases.

The CDC is following the science with this latest decision, says James Hodge, who directs the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University.

“I believe that a two-week period is just enough to say we’re watching very carefully,” he says. “If we pull this mask mandate, we will have extended numbers of infections — that’s not responsible and that’s counter to the public’s health.

However, there has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to lift the mask rule.

In a letter to Biden last month, the industry group Airlines for America argued that it was no longer necessary to keep the order in place. Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has also recently announced he’s leading a multi-state lawsuit against the requirement to wear masks on public transit.

While there are many supporters of the mask requirement, some infectious disease experts say it’s time for the U.S. to lift the mandate because cases are much lower than they have been in a long time.

In fact, the CDC’s own metrics show that about 95% of the country is currently designated as having “low” community levels of COVID-19, says Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF.

“It’s really not consistent to have a mask mandate on a plane or a bus versus the whole community,” says Gandhi.

She notes that activities like indoor dining tend to be more risky than flying on planes, which have very good ventilation. “So I think the inconsistency can be perceived as problematic.”

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Transcript :

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you’re traveling anywhere this month by plane, train or taxi, you’re going to need to wear a mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet again extended the requirement for wearing masks on public transportation. It was set to expire on Monday, but now it will be in place until May 3. NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us now to discuss more. Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So this mask order – I mean, it’s nothing new, right? Like, this is basically life as we know it throughout the pandemic.

HUANG: It’s true. It’s been around for a while. It was put in place last February, so it’s been in place for well over a year. And the point of the order is to really get people to cover their noses and mouths on public transport to stop the spread of coronavirus. The order comes from the CDC, and it gets enforced by the Transportation Security Administration or the TSA. And it applies to planes, trains, subways, transportation hubs like metro stations and airports. It also applies to taxis and rideshares. Now, in the past, it’s been set to expire a few times, but it keeps getting extended. This time, the CDC says that they’re seeing cases go up, so they wanted to be extra cautious.

CHANG: OK, I get that. But I mean, things have been much calmer with the coronavirus, right? Like, what is the situation with COVID right now?

HUANG: Well, generally speaking, the country’s doing okay. Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House coronavirus coordinator, told NPR this week that the U.S. is in a good moment, and infection numbers are pretty low.

ASHISH JHA: We have fewer people in the hospital right now than at any point in the pandemic. We’re in a very different moment than where we were a couple of years ago, where a COVID infection necessarily meant people were at potentially very high risk of having bad outcomes.

HUANG: There’s about 30,000 new cases a day, which is way, way down from the peak of the omicron surge. But still, in the past two weeks, cases have gone up by more than 20%. It’s driven by the newish omicron subvariant, BA.2, and it’s probably an undercount because the testing strategy has shifted to testing at home, and a lot of people don’t report those results.

CHANG: Right.

HUANG: Still, there hasn’t been much of an uptick in hospitalizations, and so the CDC says that they’re assessing whether these new cases could lead to a big increase in severe disease and death or strain the hospitals. So from their perspective, it’s best to keep the mask order in place, at least through May 3.

CHANG: OK – caution makes sense. What kind of response has this CDC decision been getting?

HUANG: Well, even before this decision, the mask mandate was getting pushback from some members of Congress and the travel industry. Last month, Republican senators voted to overturn it. And a few days ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others asked the White House to lift it, saying that the burden of enforcement has fallen on people like airline employees who have to deal with really frustrated customers. It’s not just businesses that take issue with the mask requirement. Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at UC San Francisco, says the policy conflicts with other messages that the CDC is sending.

MONICA GANDHI: It’s really not consistent to have a mask mandate on a plane or a bus versus the whole community. So I think the inconsistency can be perceived as problematic.

HUANG: But the mask order definitely has some support. James Hodge is a public law professor at Arizona State University.

JAMES HODGE: I like it. It is responsible. It’s reflective of what they’re seeing with the public health signs.

HUANG: He says that the CDC is making policies based on epidemiology and that extending the mask order for just two weeks makes sense. It’s long enough to show that the CDC is watching the situation carefully.

CHANG: That is NPR’s Pien Huang. Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.