Things to consider before taking off your mask on public transport or on an airplane

After a federal judge on Monday the federal mask mandate cancelled on planes and on public transportation, many Americans welcomed the decision, while others questioned whether it’s safe to go without a face covering when traveling at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise again across the country.

The Transportation Security Administration said Monday it would not enforce the mask requirement while the White House assessed whether to appeal the ruling, according to an official with the Biden administration.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend that people wear masks on public transport or on airplanes. To add to the confusion, some local transit authorities (such as Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) have changed their mask mandates after the ruling, while others (such as New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority) have kept them intact.

To offer some advice on wearing masks, Yahoo News spoke to medical officer Dr. Lucy McBride, a physician in Washington, DC, who specializes in internal medicine. (Some comments have been edited for length and clarity.)

Yahoo News: What are some factors to consider when deciding to wear a mask?

dr. Lucy McBride: Vaccination, ventilation and vigilance – those are the three Rs in reducing risk for people most at risk from this virus.

Whether you decide to wear your mask in public in a crowded room, in a less crowded room, at a concert, at a bar, at a restaurant with your friends, it really comes down to your medical vulnerabilities, your immune status: have you had Omicron or COVID in the past; are you vaccinated; which vaccine have you had and what distance has it been; and your tolerance for risk.

There really isn’t a good answer to the question of whether you should [wear a] mask or not. There is no one-size-fits-all behavioral recommendation, because in the Omicron era, this is a highly contagious strain. We can only delay, we cannot prevent exposure to the coronavirus. Unless, of course, we decided to cut ourselves off from the world, which for most people isn’t compatible. My job is to arm people with the tools they need to delay exposure to the coronavirus, and then protect themselves from the dire consequences with mitigation measures that have been proven to be effective and the damage of ongoing consider limitations.

What are the highest and lowest risk situations when it comes to wearing a mask?

The high-risk situation where a patient might want to consider a one-way mask is a poorly ventilated, crowded indoor public space where you don’t know the immune status of those around you, if you yourself are at high risk for severe impacts from COVID and in locations where the hospital admissions are high.

We don’t have to worry outside [about wearing a mask]†

What is the risk level with public transport?

Public transport, it depends. Aircraft actually have very sophisticated ventilation systems and probably pose the lowest risk. There are so many variables other than just the plane itself. If you had a plane full of people crawling with the coronavirus, there isn’t any amount of ventilation to make a difference. I’d be less worried about a plane than a poorly ventilated subway where people cough and sneeze at each other. But that’s what I would have worried about in pre-pandemic 2019.

If you are not using public transport because of a [lifted] mask mandate now, you may not travel anymore, because this virus is here forever. I would really encourage people to think about how they can protect themselves with the proven mitigation measures we have [COVID-19 vaccines] and use the mask as extra protection if you want or need to.

Is a person wearing a mask still protected if everyone else in public is not wearing one?

One-way masking – that is, an N95 mask that you put on properly and that you don’t take off – does not depend on the people around you. That does not depend on the behavior of people around you. That’s the mental leap we need to make: thinking we can’t protect ourselves if other people aren’t masked. We can.

What should people know in the future?

Given how contagious and how transmissible Omicron is, and given that this virus is here forever, we cannot prevent exposure to this virus. We can delay it and we can minimize the risk of serious consequences. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be cautious — it’s to accept the unpleasant reality that COVID is here to stay. We need to root our policies and our own behavior in fact, not the idea that we can avoid this virus forever because it’s not realistic.

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