On Monday, a federal judge in Florida struck down the Biden administration’s mask mandate for airplanes, trains and other public transport. Within hours, several major airlines announced that they would no longer be enforcing mask requirements, and mask-wearing is optional.
How can people continue to keep safe on planes now that masks are no longer required? What about vulnerable individuals like immunocompromised people and young children who aren’t yet vaccinated? Do you need to quarantine if you’re visiting vulnerable people and you were just on a flight? Should people consider canceling their travel plans?
To help answer these questions, I spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
CNN: First of all, how worried are you about masks no longer being required on flights?
Dr. Leana Wen: Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve said that my major concern with Covid-19 risk during travel isn’t what happens during transit, but what happens after people get to their destination. It may seem like planes are high risk because there are a lot of people in close proximity to one another, but planes have not been a major source of virus spread even before masking requirements. That’s because the ventilation on airplanes is quite good, with more frequent air exchanges than most office buildings. The HEPA filters they have are on par with the ones used in hospitals.
That said, masks – especially when used properly and consistently – do reduce the risk of virus transmission. There could be higher risk now that masks are no longer required. That means people who wish to remain cautious must take matters into their own hands even more to protect themselves.
CNN: What are steps people can take to continue keeping safe on planes?
Wen: Just because masks aren’t required by the government doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t wear them. I have several trips this month by train and by plane, and I will certainly be choosing to mask in the airport, train station, on the train and plane, and in other crowded areas.
If you are going to wear a mask, please wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask – an N95, KN95 or KF94 mask. I get very worried when I see people in simple cloth masks. They may think that those masks are protecting them, but they aren’t doing much, especially when we are dealing with the extremely contagious Omicron subvariants.