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Should you still wear a mask on the plane? Doctors explain how to decide

Travelers enter a security line at Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport in Providence, R.I., Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

(NEXSTAR) – A federal judge changed everything this week by voiding the federal mandate requiring masks on planes, public transit and in travel hubs. The Justice Department is appealing that decision, but as of Thursday morning, masks are not required by federal law in those settings.

As soon as the court ruling was announced this week, major airlines started dropping their mask requirements. Some even announced the decision mid-flight, allowing passengers to unmask and cheer if they wanted.

But is the rule change something to cheer about? Can you feel confident unmasking on your next flight?

As long as the current situation holds, masking remains a personal decision. We asked doctors how they’d go about making that decision for themselves.

When asked if he’d continue wearing a mask on planes right now, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong responded: “100 percent.”

“Even though as a boosted person, I am confident that I will not get seriously ill, I can’t afford to even get infected as I would have to stay away from work taking care of patients and my colleagues will have to cover me,” explained the infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.

He also visits his mother, who is in her 80s, and he considers the consequences of potentially exposing her as he makes decisions about masking.

Arthur Caplan, a medical ethics professor at New York University, said he would also mask up. He’s 72 years old, which puts him at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. “I am fully vaccinated, but still I don’t see the mask as a huge burden to protect myself a bit more,” he said.

John Swartzberg, an infectious disease and vaccinology professor at UC Berkeley, told the Washington Post anyone who is concerned about catching the coronavirus should still wear a mask – plain and simple. Not to mention, masking can protect you from other types of viruses, like the flu.

If you’re trying to decide whether you should still wear a mask on the plane, the experts we asked suggested asking yourself the following questions:

  • How much is the virus circulating now? Consider case rates around the U.S., and even around the world, as you don’t know where the people on your flight are coming from.
  • Will you or the people you care about get seriously ill as a consequence? Are you fully vaccinated and boosted? Are there unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or elderly and vulnerable people in your inner circle?
  • Can you afford to get sick? Even if you don’t get seriously ill and suffer long-term consequences, would getting sick be a hardship for you economically, force you to cancel important plans, or set you back at school?

Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of medicine at UCSF, tweeted an elaborate formula as a suggestion for how to think through the situation. He suggested you should multiply several factors, including your personal risk of serious COVID complications, how much virus is circulating in your hometown, how inconvenient it would be for you to get sick, and how much you care about vulnerable people who might be on the plane.

In reality, it’s impossible to ascribe exact mathematic values to all those factors, so Wachter skips to the results:

“My conclusion: wear an N95 or equivalent.”


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