Delta Air Lines on Tuesday walked back calling the deadly pandemic virus SARS-CoV-2 an “ordinary seasonal virus” after widespread backlash from health experts and travelers, who noted that the virus that has killed nearly a million Americans so far is neither ordinary nor necessarily seasonal.
The downplayed descriptor for the coronavirus appeared in a news release the airline released Monday announcing that masks are now optional for employees and customers on domestic and some international flights. The change came on the heels of a federal judge’s order that vacated the federal mandate for masking on mass transit and transit hubs, which include airplanes and airports but also transit stations, buses, trains, subways, ferries, taxis, and rideshares.
“We are relieved to see the US mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus,” Delta originally wrote in its news release Monday. The company updated the release Tuesday to read: “We are relieved to see the US mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 transitions to a more manageable respiratory virus—with better treatments, vaccines, and other scientific measures to prevent serious illness.”
Cheers and fears
Many travelers celebrated the end of the federal mask mandate, and many businesses, like Delta, swiftly dropped their policies requiring face coverings Monday and Tuesday, including the country’s three other top airlines: United, Southwest, and American. Reports quickly began circulating online of air travelers gleefully removing their masks mid-flight as requirements were lifted.
But many health experts and others—particularly immunocompromised people, such as cancer patients and parents of children too young to be vaccinated—were horrified and angered by the abrupt change. For those more vulnerable to the virus, the policy reversal suddenly makes essential travel on stuffy city busses, crammed commuter trains, and cramped airplanes more dangerous. And the close quarters in rideshares and taxis may not translate to less risk for those who can afford them; Uber also updated its policy Tuesday to make masks optional for riders and drivers.
When I bought my tickets for me, my wife (who is pregnant), and our unvaccinated 4-year-old, I assumed you would continue to have a mask mandate.
Now you cancel it and we will have to board our return flight under your new no mask required policy?!
Thanks so much.
— Jeremy Faust MD MS (ER physician) (@jeremyfaust) April 18, 2022
The unmasking comes as cases have once again begun ticking up in the country, particularly in the Northeast, and booster uptake remains abysmal at around 30 percent of the population. According to data tracking from The New York Times, cases of COVID-19 have increased by 43 percent in the last two weeks, with a seven-day average of daily new cases of around 40,000. But officials point out that the true number of cases is likely significantly higher, given that states and local health departments have scaled back testing and more people have opted for at-home tests, the results of which are generally not included in official tallies.
The rises are thought to be driven by yet more transmissible subvariants of the ultra-transmissible coronavirus variant omicron. The initial version of omicron, BA.1, led to a spike in cases 386 percent larger than that of the delta variant, and the peak hospitalization rate among children was four times higher. Now, omicron subvariant BA.2, which is more transmissible than BA.1, accounts for 74 percent of the cases in the US. And an even more transmissible version than BA.2—dubbed BA.2.12.1—is gaining ground. BA.2.12.1 now accounts for around 19 percent of US cases, according to the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With the pandemic threat still lingering, many health experts are dismayed by the joyful shedding of even basic precautions, such as masking on crowded transit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends masking on transit, but it is unclear if the federal government will pursue reversing the federal judge’s order vacating the mask mandate.