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: ‘The equivalent of a plane’s worth of people still die every day’: If you wear a mask on a train or plane, while others don’t, will it protect you from COVID-19?

Does it pay to be a mask-wearing outlier?

On Monday, a federal judge in Tampa, Fla. threw out the national mask mandate for public transportation across the U.S., effectively giving airports and airlines, trains, and even ride-hailing services the option to keep mask rules or abandon them, resulting in mask-mandate rules that will vary depending on the city, company and mode of transport. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently extended recommendations to wear masks to May 3. 

The Biden administration said the mask mandate on public transport would not be enforced as federal agencies decide how to respond to District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s order. The Transportation Security Administration said it won’t enforce mask-wearing on planes and public transit. United Airlines
Delta Air Lines

and American Airlines

said masks would no longer be required on domestic flights, and certain international flights. 

“Please note face masks may still be required based on local ordinances, or when traveling to/from certain international locations based on country requirements,” American Airlines said in a statement in response to the judge’s ruling. “In keeping with our commitment to creating a welcoming environment for everyone who travels with us, customers and team members may choose to continue to wear masks at their own discretion.”

Is it even worth wearing a mask if other people on your bus, train or plane are maskless? To quote the CDC’s research on the issue: “Masks substantially reduce exhaled respiratory droplets and aerosols from infected wearers and reduce exposure of uninfected wearers to these particles. The CDC advises making sure a mask isn’t too loose and fits the contours of your face, and recommends wearing medical-grade masks.

“People who plan to travel can take comfort that wearing a mask provides at least some protection even when others don’t wear one.”

People who are planning to travel can take comfort that wearing a mask provides at least some protection even when others don’t wear one, research suggests. The same CDC study also found that wearing a mask only provides 7.5% protection against exposure to a simulated cough. Still, the study also found that a knotted/tucked medical procedure mask offered 64.5% protection and wearing a cloth mask over a medical-procedure mask provided 83% protection from that simulated cough. 

But masks work better when everyone is wearing them, ideally medical-procedure masks such as N95s, the U.S. standard, or KN95, the Chinese standard. This review of research published in January 2021 the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Journal concluded: “Public mask wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high.”

Some people reacted to the latest decision on masks with dismay, and criticized the reversal of mask policies by airlines. Vivian Leal, an activist for people with MSA, or Multiple System Atrophy, a rare neurodegenerative disorder, wrote on Twitter

: “This is rough news for the millions of us who are #Immunosuppressed. Healthy folks resist wearing a mask on a plane — such a small inconvenience. You’ve no idea what we go through.” 

Karen K. Ho, a writer at Thinknum Alternative Data, tweeted: “I am personally very tired of screaming inside my heart for two straight years only to watch airlines lift mask mandates while the equivalent of a plane’s worth of people still die every day of COVID-19 in the U.S.” The CDC currently estimates the daily death toll from the virus at 393, bringing the COVID-related deaths in the U.S. to 986,123. Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations are 1,398.

Ultimately, however, the CDC says “source control” is the gold standard. “Masks are primarily intended to reduce the emission of virus-laden droplets by the wearer, which is especially relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others (estimated to account for more than 50% of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions). Masks also help reduce inhalation of these droplets by the wearer.”

Related: No, you’re not crazy. Yes, the CDC’s mask guidelines are confusing — should you wear a mask indoors even if you’re vaccinated?

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