On Monday, Delta, the airline and not the virus, offered their “variant” on the way that the Covid-19 coronavirus is being portrayed. Earlier that day, news had spread about one U.S. District Judge, Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, ruling against the federal mask mandate for public transit. Soon thereafter, Delta announced that it would be immediately dropping face mask requirements. They even went as far as to claim that “Covid-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus.” Now, calling Covid-19 coronavirus an “ordinary season virus” would certainly quite a variation from what most real scientists and public health experts have been saying, as infectious disease epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, pointed out in the following tweets:
If ordinary means causing over 987,000 deaths in the U.S. a little over two years and still causing close to 500 deaths a day, stay far away from anyone who calls himself or herself ordinary. Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, an epidemiologist and Chief of the COVID Risk Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute, raised the possibility that Delta didn’t even talk to real scientific experts before making what was supposedly, you know, a scientific statement:
As you can see, Feigl-Ding warned about the risks of carrying across the misleading impression that the Covid-19 pandemic is somehow over and that Covid-19 precautions can be dropped. Now, it’s not yet clear whether there’s going to be another significant Covid-19 surge in the coming weeks. But with Covid-19 cases on the upswing, more contagious Omicron variants spreading, and the virus still causing many hospitalizations and long Covid cases, a premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions could lead to a very messy situation.
Speaking of premature, it seemed like many airlines could hardly wait to drop their face mask requirements. In fact, based on social media accounts, airline employees were ditching face masks as if they were soiled underwear or burnt hot dogs right in the middle of flights. For example, take a look at what actress Brooke Tansley tweeted about a Delta Airlines flight:
Imagine getting on an airplane thinking that everyone will be required to wear face masks and then having to deal with a switcheroo right in the middle of the flight. Wouldn’t that be a bit like suddenly hearing, “Ok, the condom is coming off,” in a rather inopportune time without having much say in the matter? After all, the Covid-19 pandemic ain’t over. The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is still spreading, with the average number of new reported Covid-19 cases per day in the U.S. having risen by 43% over the past two weeks, according to The New York Times. As you can see, Tansley wrote, “Here we are, trapped in the sky with our 8 month old unmasked baby (you can’t actually mask a baby that young) under the supposition that everyone who can be masked would be masked, and the flight 325 crew has taken our choices away from us.” Note her use of the word “trapped,” since, in general, passengers don’t have the “freedom” of walking out of the plane while it’s still in the air.
Meanwhile, Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, who’s now the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Assistant Administrator for Global Health, twote about a similar experience on JetBlue:
Wow, indeed. In saying “I th0ught CDC’s 2 wk wait to see if hospitalizations climb was sensible,” Gawande was referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) decision last week to maintain federal face mask requirements on airplanes and other public transit until May 3. But as Alison Durkee reported for Forbes on Monday, Mizelle has claimed that such a mask mandate went beyond CDC’s authority under the Public Health Services Act of 1944.
Mizelle doesn’t exactly have the qualifications of a medical doctor or other type of scientist. In fact, there have been questions her qualifications as a U.S. District judge. Stephanie Sarkis covered for Forbes how the American Bar Association (ABA) had given her a “not qualified” rating back when then President and current Mar-A-Lago resident Donald Trump appointed her to her current U.S. District Judge position in 2020. The Chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary even had written a letter to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary stating that Mizelle at the time did “not meet the requisite minimum standard of experience necessary to perform the responsibilities required by the high office of a federal trial judge.”
How much influence did this one judge and her opinion have? Well, as Durkee also indicated, the Biden Administration will no longer enforce the federal transportation mask mandate due to Mizelle’s ruling. This despite the fact that multiple scientific studies have supported the use of face masks to reduce transmission of the SARS-CoV-2, as I covered for Forbes on April 10. So much for science.
Gawande went on to point out the high likelihood of at least one person on his flight being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 because that’s how math and odds work:
Now, you alone wearing a face mask would not offer nearly the same amount of protection as everyone on the flight wearing face masks would. Face masks are like pants, skirts, or kilts. Would you go to a restaurant where they said, “you are welcome to wear clothes but not everyone will be doing so?” You may be a bit worried about the Chef’s Special.
Delta has since updated the statement that it had originally posted on Monday, along with the following Editor’s note: “This story, originally published April 18, was updated at 10 a.m. April 19 for clarity and accuracy.” Clarity and accuracy, indeed. The story no longer includes the phrase “Covid-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus,” because the virus hasn’t agreed to such a statement yet. Everyone’s immune systems haven’t yet either.
Of course, U.S. airlines could have chosen to ignore what that one judge said and instead continued to follow the science. But Delta wasn’t the only airline to quickly change course. United Airlines tweeted out the following prehistoric message on the same day that Mizelle’s ruling went public:
Then there was the Alaskan Airlines announcement that stated, “Face masks have been like boarding passes for nearly two years — you couldn’t fly without one. But, as of today, masks are optional in airports and onboard aircraft, effective immediately.” Umm, don’t equate face masks with boarding passes. No legitimate study has shown that having a boarding pass will protect you against getting Covid-19 or from spewing the virus into the air. And, no, strapping your boarding pass over your nose and mouth would not be a good idea or an adequate replacement for a face mask.
The announcement did add that “Note: Guests must continue to wear masks on flights both to and from Canada,” since Canada among multiple other countries and organizations have been continuing face mask requirements. That’s because not all countries are allowing a single judge with no significant scientific background to determine public health policy that can affect the health and lives of millions of people.
The announcement went on to say, “Safety is always our highest priority, so while we love to see your smiling faces in the airport and on board, we respect your decision to keep using this added layer of protection.” OK, while you may choose to respect a person’s decision to wear a sweater vest or a velour tracksuit with word “juicy” on your bottom, it’s not really appropriate to suggest that face mask use is a personal decision and that not wearing one doesn’t affect other people. How often do you hear people saying, “we respect your decision to not cough on strangers” or “we respect your decision to not pee in the pool?” With the SARS-CoV-2, especially the Omicron variant, being so contagious, so readily airborne, so widespread, and still quite dangerous right now, acts like breathing, talking, and singing too close to others without a face mask could be quite similar to coughing.
What happened Monday is more evidence of many people, businesses, and organizations not following the science or scientists when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. The science didn’t change on Monday. Neither did the virus nor did everyone’s immune systems. The only thing that really changed was one judge making public her opinion. When safety is supposed to be the “highest priority” wouldn’t it make sense to listen to real health professionals and scientists instead?