‘We are going to see increased spread’: Boston doctor says reversal of travel mask mandate will put people at risk

‘We are going to see increased spread’: Boston doctor says reversal of travel mask mandate will put people at risk

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“I’m especially worried about public transportation and those who rely on it.”

An infectious disease doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital is expressing concern that the spread of COVID-19 will ramp up after a federal judge struck down the CDC’s mask mandate for all forms of public transportation, prompting transit agencies and airlines alike to drop requirements for face coverings during travel. 

Dr. John Brownstein, an infectious disease epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s, told ABC News on Tuesday the judge’s decision sets a “tough precedent” for public policy.

The doctor pointed to the CDC’s plan to wait a few more weeks to fully understand the ‘stealth omicron’ variant also known as BA.2, which is now the dominant strain of coronavirus in the United States, before making a decision on mask mandates for public transportation.

With the reversal by the Florida judge, the national health agency now isn’t getting that time, Brownstein said. On top of that, the CDC is no longer the entity setting public health policy for the country, he said.

“We are going to see increased spread and it’s not really up to a single judge to set public health policy for the entire country and say that the pandemic is over,” he said. “It’s going to put a lot of people at risk. I’m especially worried about public transportation and those who rely on it. It’s just going to be amping up the potential for spread in communities. And we’re not quite done with COVID. I know we’re potentially at the end of another surge, but the last thing we want to do is create additional transmission and let this BA.2 variant fly very quickly across communities.”

In Massachusetts, both the MBTA and Massport announced masks will no longer be required for travelers, falling in-line with the reversal by the Transportation Safety Administration. Initially, the MBTA indicated early Tuesday it would continue to follow guidelines from the CDC, which recommends masks on public transportation, before announcing it was dropping the face covering requirement. 

Brownstein said he expects, with BA.2 accounting for 90 percent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., that the country will see another wave of infections following the dropping of mask mandates for travel. 

“Yes, we’re seeing drops nationally, but there are parts of this country that are seeing flare-ups, especially in the Northeast,” he said. “And the last thing you want to do is add fuel to the fire of this variant to spread in communities. And that’s probably what will happen. As you know, transportation is a big way that variants move around, whether it’s in the country or internationally. So you’ve got a lot of unmasked people sitting in a plane, they’ll spread that BA2 variant and bring it back to communities that may not have that variant at this point.”

Increased cases mean hospitalizations and deaths will follow, the doctor pointed out. 

Brownstein said individuals should check what the COVID policies are for their local areas, noting that the reversal by the judge is creating confusion about what is required versus what is recommended. 

The doctor said he was on a plane Monday night when he got the alert on his phone about the change in mask policy. 

“I kept my mask on,” he said. “It’s still a time when we have active transmission in the community, and we want to do our part to reduce risk. I think especially if you’re in a vulnerable category or someone who is not eligible for the vaccine, obviously young kids, I think you’ll still want to use a high quality mask. So N95, KN95, KF94, any of those masks will be helpful. They need to be well-fitted, but they’re not 100 percent.”

Those high-filtration masks offer about a 95 percent reduction in risk, Brownstein said. 

“Those who are maybe more vulnerable, they may want to think twice about getting on a plane at this point,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll have more data about BA.2 in the coming weeks to help people make better decisions about how they should travel going forward.”

Watch his full appearance below:

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