A resigned sigh is the adult response to this week’s announcement that air travelers must continue donning face masks amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s not welcome: entitled bellyaching. Continued masking is a minor inconvenience as leisure and business travelers return, especially for the shorter flights domestic travel involves. Just deal with it like a grown-up. Any complaints should be stuffed into the overhead bin next to carry-on luggage instead of being hurled at flight crews.
On Wednesday, federal officials announced a two-week extension of the mask requirement for travelers on “planes, trains and in transit hubs.” That requirement previously had been set to expire on Monday but will remain in place at least through May 3.
As much as everyone wants this pandemic to be over, it clearly isn’t. The continued mask requirement sensibly reflects this reality, though the two-week extension may be overly optimistic.
As of this week, more than 500 Americans are still dying each day on average after infection with the COVID virus, according to the New York Times COVID tracker. That’s down 26% over the previous 14 days, but nevertheless is an appalling number.
A comparison of the current COVID death count to that from a recent severe influenza season offers chilling perspective. The flu virus often arrives with winter weather. In the 2017-18 flu season, an estimated 61,000 Americans died after contracting the virus, far outpacing any year in that decade.
That works out to a 167 deaths a day on average. Now consider the same stat for COVID: 533 deaths daily. COVID may now be a familiar foe as the pandemic enters its third year, but it remains a serious health threat.
News reports from the United Kingdom underscore this. New, more transmissible COVID variants are circulating. Cases spiked in the U.K. in mid-March. Employee infections contributed to flight disruptions and airport security backups.
What happens in Britain often foreshadows COVID’s U.S. course. This week, Philadelphia announced that it will reinstate its indoor mask requirement with cases at low levels but rising. Another red flag: a COVID outbreak affecting U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others who attended a recent high-profile dinner in Washington, D.C.
Leaving the mask requirement in place for travelers, particularly air travelers, is a reasonable and targeted alternative to reinstating broader mitigation measures. People from around the world sit in confined indoor spaces on board, on jetways and at gates. Then they disburse into the community shortly. These conditions can turn a regional outbreak into a global threat.
Other objections to be dismissed:
- Planes filter the air. True. But filtration might not be effective in the jetway, ticket counter or baggage carousel. And by now, the hazards of relying on a sole solution against COVID should be clear. A layered approach is vital. That includes filters but also vaccines, masks and good hygiene.
- But I’m vaccinated. The vaccine is indeed the most potent weapon against COVID, but its effectiveness against infection can wane over time or against variants, even as it continues to protect against severe illness. The vaccine also isn’t available yet for travelers 5 and younger. Masks help protect them and those who are immunocompromised.
- I heard that masks don’t work. Nothing is 100% effective, but masks can dramatically decrease COVID’s spread. One large recent study involved 1.1 million schoolchildren in nine states. It found that schools where masking was mandatory “during the Delta surge had approximately 72% fewer cases of in-school transmission of SARS-CoV-2 when compared to schools with optional or partial masking policies.”
Alarming evidence is also accruing about COVID’s lingering consequences. In February, the prestigious Nature journal reported that “Heart-disease soars after COVID — even with a mild case.” A large study published in the same journal in late March found that a COVID infection can increase the risk of diabetes for up to a year after.
Masking protects you and those around you. Extending the mask requirement for air travelers — at least temporarily — was the right call.