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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If you’re traveling anywhere this month by plane, train or taxi, you’re going to need to wear a mask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet again extended the requirement for wearing masks on public transportation. It was set to expire on Monday, but now it will be in place until May 3. NPR health reporter Pien Huang join us now to discuss more. Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So this mask order – I mean, it’s nothing new, right? Like, this is basically life as we know it throughout the pandemic.

HUANG: It’s true. It’s been around for a while. It was put in place last February, so it’s been in place for well over a year. And the point of the order is to really get people to cover their noses and mouths on public transport to stop the spread of coronavirus. The order comes from the CDC, and it gets enforced by the Transportation Security Administration or the TSA. And it applies to planes, trains, subways, transportation hubs like metro stations and airports. It also applies to taxis and rideshares. Now, in the past, it’s been set to expire a few times, but it keeps getting extended. This time, the CDC says that they’re seeing cases go up, so they wanted to be extra cautious.

CHANG: Okay, I get that. But I mean, things have been much calmer with the coronavirus, right? Like, what is the situation with COVID right now?

HUANG: Well, generally speaking, the country’s doing okay. Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House coronavirus coordinator, told NPR this week that the US is in a good moment, and infection numbers are pretty low.

ASHISH JHA: We have fewer people in the hospital right now than at any point in the pandemic. We’re in a very different moment than where we were a couple of years ago, where a COVID infection necessarily meant people were at potentially very high risk of having bad outcomes.

HUANG: There’s about 30,000 new cases a day, which is way, way down from the peak of the omicron surge. But still, in the past two weeks, cases have gone up by more than 20%. It’s driven by the newish omicron subvariant, BA.2, and it’s probably an undercount because the testing strategy has shifted to testing at home, and a lot of people don’t report those results.

CHANG: Right.

HUANG: Still, there hasn’t been much of an uptick in hospitalizations, and so the CDC says that they’re assessing whether these new cases could lead to a big increase in severe disease and death or strain the hospitals. So from their perspective, it’s best to keep the mask order in place, at least through May 3.

CHANG: OK – caution makes sense. What kind of response has this CDC decision been getting?

HUANG: Well, even before this decision, the mask mandate was getting pushback from some members of Congress and the travel industry. Last month, Republican senators voted to overturn it. And a few days ago, the US Chamber of Commerce and others asked the White House to lift it, saying that the burden of enforcement has fallen on people like airline employees who have to deal with really frustrated customers. It’s not just businesses that take issue with the mask requirement. Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at UC San Francisco, says the policy conflicts with other messages that the CDC is sending.

MONICA GANDHI: It’s really not consistent to have a mask mandate on a plane or a bus versus the whole community. So I think the inconsistency can be perceived as problematic.

HUANG: But the mask order definitely has some support. James Hodge is a public law professor at Arizona State University.

JAMES HODGE: I like it. It is responsible. It’s reflective of what they’re seeing with the public health signs.

HUANG: He says that the CDC is making policies based on epidemiology and that extending the mask order for just two weeks makes sense. It’s long enough to show that the CDC is watching the situation carefully.

CHANG: That is NPR’s Pien Huang. Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: Thanks, Ailsa.

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