No more masks on mass transit

Photo courtesy of Cherriots.

Although the US Justice Department said April 20 they might appeal the decision, a federal court judge in Florida effectively ended the federal mask mandate this week. Within hours, airports and mass transit agencies across the country were announcing they were dropping the requirement, including the Salem-Keizer area Cherriots service.

“Effective immediately, masks are optional for Cherriots riders and employees,” said a press release on April 19.

Most of the other local agencies, colleges and universities, including nearby Chemeketa Community College, dropped their mandates in March – however most hospital and medical care settings in Oregon still require facial coverings.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also announced yesterday that they would not be enforcing the mandate while the Justice Department reviews its options, which impacts every airport, train and bus station in the country.

This doesn’t mean the end of masks while traveling, of course – individual airlines and local transit agencies can make their own rules regarding masks, such New York’s MTA, who said today they would continue to require them on New York subways and busses.

Meanwhile the Center for Disease Control continues to recommend mask-wearing as a precaution against infection while in enclosed areas. Here in Oregon, mask requirements are dropping everywhere — just as COVID numbers are spiking again with the BA.2 variant, which has quickly become the dominant strain infecting the most people.

The decisions surrounding mask mandates are largely based on the numbers of cases rising or falling in any given area. Here in Oregon, those numbers are generated by the Oregon Health Authority, whose experts reminded journalists at a media availability on April 20 that the primary defense against COVID is getting vaccinated and boosted.  

Public health physicians with the OHA, Dr. Tom Jeanne and Dr. Paul Cieslak, fielded questions from reporters about how the mandate-lift would impact the so-called “undercount,” which indicates the existence of COVID cases in Oregon which aren’t being reported or tracked.

“Really throughout the pandemic, there has been an undercount,” said Jeanne. When the only people reporting COVID infections are hospitals, he said it’s difficult to get an accurate number.

“What’s changed is that we have a significant number of people who are testing at home, and if they take a test that indicates a negative result, they often just throw it out – we have no way of tracking those, so we try to account for that,” said Jeanne. “Our methodology – OHSU’s methodology – incorporates mask wearing when we’re making our estimates. The lifting of the mandate for transportation just happened,” he said in reference to available data.

The OHA officials assured reporters they had confidence in Oregon’s ability to avoid the worst of the BA.2 variants, and recommended continued mask-wearing for people at high risk of infection.

“We now have 83% of Oregonians who have received at least one course of the vaccine,” said Jeanne. “The vaccines are designed to keep people out of the hospital.”

“The vaccine is still offering significant protection,” added Cieslak. “But I think you can take it as a given that there is a lot of COVID out there.”