Lifting of travel mask mandate not welcome news for immunocompromised and at-risk travelers


Brooke Tansley, 43, was mid-flight with her two little kids when the plane’s pilot announced on the intercom he had “exciting news.” With notable enthusiasm, the pilot announced the Transportation Security Administration had ended its mask mandate and travelers could take off their masks, she said.

But Tansley, traveling with two children under 5 who can’t be vaccinated against COVID-19 to visit a colleague with a rare autoimmune disorder, didn’t share the pilot’s eagerness to unmask.

“We walked on the plane under one set of circumstances, having made a decision as a family, and then those circumstances changed,” said Tansley, a television producer based in Nashville. “Our ability to make a decision about what we were comfortable with was taken from us in that moment.”

A Florida judge on Monday ruled that the federal mask mandate for passengers traveling on airplanes and other public transportation exceeded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s authority, striking down the requirement effective immediately. The mandate was set to expire Monday, but the CDC had extended it 15 days to longer study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus responsible for the majority of U.S. cases. It’s not yet known whether the agency will recommend the judge’s order be appealed.

While some expressed glee and relief at the announcement, taking off their masks mid-flight or posting on social media, many immunocompromised or otherwise at-risk Americans say they were filled with dread.

“Being immunocompromised, it’s already a huge risk getting on a plane with everybody masked,” said Derek Schmitz, 17, of Oxford, Alabama, who takes immune-suppressing arthritis medication and has to fly for work as a disability advocate. “Now, knowing that I most likely will be one of the only people on a plane with a mask is petrifying.”

After the mask mandate for airplanes and public transportation was voided, ride-share companies followed. Both Uber and Lyft announced Tuesday masks would no longer be required for riders or drivers.

“I was angry and felt hopeless,” said Erin Masengale, 33, who has multiple autoimmune diseases treated by immunosuppressants. “I just want people to realize that when they cheer for the ending of protections, they’re cheering for the ending of access to everything for people like me.”

“Being immunocompromised, it’s already a huge risk getting on a plane with everybody masked. Now, knowing that I most likely will be one of the only people on a plane with a mask is petrifying.”—Derek Schmitz, immunocompromised traveler and disability advocate

About 3% of Americans are immunocompromised under its strict definition, but additional chronically ill Americans and those with disabilities also face greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19, according to Kaiser Health News, a publication of the health nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. On top of that, about 19 million children under the age of 5 remain ineligible for the vaccine, the foundation says.

Removing mask mandates for travelers, whether cross-country by plane or cross-town by bus, places the burden of safety on the immunocompromised and others at risk, said Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease fellow at Stanford University.

“They no longer can depend on any kind of community level intervention,” Karan said. “It’s now all about your individual level protections in high risk settings and people can’t avoid it.”

That’s been a reality faced by many at-risk Americans throughout the pandemic.

“We’ve got to take a step back and reevaluate everything, because dropping everything at once is not productive,” Schmitz said. We’re in a never ending cycle worsened by the fact that we’re willy-nilly individualism at this point.”

Dr. Shravani Durbhakula, a pain physician and anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins called the judge’s decision “infuriating.”

“You’re looking at the authority of the CDC and what’s appropriate, and what’s in line with our Constitution, and while that’s important, judges are not educated in medicine, or even in public health,” she said.

The CDC still recommends masking indoors in public transportation settings.

What at-risk Americans can do for now is mask up with N95s that snugly fit around the face and avoid high risk gatherings, Karan said. Durbhakula added that improving ventilation, like opening a window while in an Uber, can also help protect against infection.

But that doesn’t give much comfort to people like Amy Goldman, who received a late-stage ovarian cancer diagnosis during the pandemic.

“I’m more fearful than I was. Not that I was planning a trip, but if I’d like to, there’s no way that I can now,” said Goldman, of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

“You want to be able to live, you know, to enjoy whatever time you have on days that you can, and something like this just just puts the clamp down on it.”

Contributing: Bailey Schulz, Michael Collins and Morgan Hines



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