COVID-19 and air travel: Experts say we should keep wearing masks after pandemic

Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon remembers flying back to the United States from Belize on March 10 last year and seeing a fellow passenger wearing gloves and a mask cleaning her tray table. She rolled her eyes at what seemed like an overreaction.

"Of course by later that week, everything had changed," she said. "I wasn't one of those people, but I have turned into one of those people."

Greaves-Gabbadon, a Miami-based travel writer and on-screen host who goes by "JetSetSarah," has taken several flights for work since late last year and now wears two masks and a face shield that goes "higher than my hairline to underneath my chin."

Once the pandemic is over, she said, she expects to keep her in-flight mask habit.

"You don't know what invisible danger there is," she said. "The people who are wearing masks now and are compliant now and want to wear masks now, I think - like me - they're going to want to continue wearing it on a plane."

Infectious-disease specialists agree that masks shouldn't be relegated to history once the pandemic has ended.

Several experts said people should keep covering their faces on planes once it is no longer required if they are feeling ill or have compromised immune systems. And even absent those conditions, many said they believe mask-wearing is a sound idea in environments like planes.

"Different respiratory pathogens may circulate at different times of the year and in different areas of the world," Lin Chen, director of the Travel Medicine Centre at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said in an email. "So when flying with travellers from anywhere/everywhere, it's a good idea to wear masks."

Everyone who flies now in the US has to wear a mask, thanks to a federal mandate requiring face coverings on planes, in airports and when using other forms of public transportation. Airlines have told passengers to cover their faces since April 2020, but they didn't have government backing until this year, when President Joe Biden issued an executive order.

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The Australian government also made masks mandatory on domestic and international flights in January.

It is not clear how long the mandates will stay in place. The order from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is in place "until further notice." Transportation Security Administration directives to enforce the order expire May 11, but the agency said that could be extended.

Kacey Ernst, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, said she does not expect the mandate to be lifted from planes "any time soon."

"We still have high levels of transmission, the threat of new variants and limited vaccine access," she said in an email, noting that global access will probably stay low even after the vaccine is readily available in the United States. "Air travel brings together people from all across the world, meaning risk gets pooled. As long as there is high levels of transmission, I expect the mask mandate will hold."

David Freedman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who has studied in-flight transmission of the coronavirus, said he expects we will know in a year if masks on planes will be required for the foreseeable future. That will depend on factors such as global vaccination progress, infection trends and whether - and how well - vaccinations prevent transmission.

Even after the pandemic has ended and authorities relax mask rules, experts believe public sentiment has changed enough that more people will consider covering their faces when traveling, as is more common in some East Asian countries.

Leonard Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he expects to see travellers with preexisting health conditions or who don't feel well wearing masks as a precaution. An aviation-industry-funded study by the initiative found that a combination of factors, including masks, ventilation, disinfecting and distancing while boarding and exiting, worked together to protect people against transmission on planes.

"Will there be a different look post-COVID than before when you look out at a group of people?" he said. "Yes: There will be more people wearing masks."

And some experts believe new rules should be developed for passengers to cover their faces even if there's no blanket mandate. Freedman, for example, said he would like to see masking measures for long-distance travellers, a situation where he said the risk of getting sick is higher.

There's another reason any future traveller might want to choose to wear a mask, and that's reflected in this season's extremely low numbers of flu and other viruses. Authorities believe that is due to measures meant to keep the coronavirus in check, such as wearing masks and distancing.

"Basically, you are avoiding more than just COVID-19 by wearing a mask," said Stuart Cohen, division chief for infectious diseases at UC Davis Health in Sacramento. "And I think that it probably does make sense to wear masks when you're in these public spaces where there are clusters of people."

The Washington Post

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