April 20, 2022 – To wear a mask or to not?

A federal judge’s ruling on Monday to nix mask requirements on public transportation continues to be hotly debated and has left some confused about where it might still be a good idea to mask up. The U.S. Justice Department has said it will appeal the ruling if the CDC decides masks are still needed in certain settings. If you do not know what to make of the ruling, or you are wondering if it is safe to take public transportation sans a mask, read on for expert advice.

Will a Mask Protect Me if I’m Sitting Close to Unmasked People?

The answer largely depends on the type of mask you wear and whether it’s worn properly (covering your mouth and nose), says Carlos del Rio, MD, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.

A high-quality N95 mask offers much more protection than a surgical mask or a bandana.

But if someone next to you on a plane is COVID-19 positive and coughing, masks may not help much, despite most planes having decent ventilation systems, according to Gigi Gronvall, PhD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

People standing in the center aisle waiting to leave after landing can also be an issue, since some planes shut down their air handling systems at that time, Gronvall says.

I’m Traveling to Visit My Loved Ones, Who Are Immunocompromised. Should I Rethink My Travel Plans?

No, do not cancel your plans, del Rio says. But you should consider getting tested for COVID.

When you are traveling to see high-risk or immunocompromised people, you should get a rapid test 24 hours before seeing them, and then take another rapid test upon arrival – “mask mandate or no mask mandate,” says del Rio.

“We need to use all the tools we have,” he says. “Testing is available – use it.”

Are There People You Would Recommend Not Traveling Right Now?

It depends, del Rio says.

Calling an Uber and hopping onto a crowded subway during rush hour are two very different scenarios.

But either way, a well-fitting, high-quality mask is a safe choice.

I Take Public Transportation Every Day. What Are Ways to Stay Healthy?

One solution is getting tested for COVID-19 more often, since early detection can open the door to different types of treatments, like antiviral medications, Gronvall says.

It is also important to look at the big picture and ask yourself which situations pose the greatest risk for COVID-19, says del Rio.

For example, you mask up on your flight, and then arrive to your destination and head to a bar and grill.

This is just one example of activities many people are already doing that pose an equal, if not greater, threat of getting infected, he says.

“It’s not just the transportation – you really need to assess all of these other things that you’re doing in your life and the risk that you’re taking.”

Is My Unvaccinated, Unmasked Child Safe to Travel?

Children who are too young to get the COVID vaccine – the Pfizer and Moderna shots are approved for everyone 5 years old and older – are best protected if they are surrounded by vaccinated, masked adults while traveling, del Rio says.

Remember, children 2 years old and older have the option to wear masks, so they can still have an added layer of protection.

For more information on traveling safely and staying healthy, click here.

Show Sources

CDC: “COVID-19 Vaccine Recommendations for Children and Teens.”

Carlos del Rio, MD, professor of medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Emory University School of Medicine.

Gigi Gronvall, PhD, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

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