The Centers for Disease Control announced Wednesday that it has extended the mask mandate on public transportation for two weeks as the agency monitors an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
The mandate, set to expire on April 18, will now continue until May 3.
The decision, the CDC said, is based on monitoring "the spread of the Omicron variant, especially the BA.2 subvariant that now makes up more than 85% of U.S. cases."
"The CDC Mask Order remains in effect while CDC assesses the potential impact of the rise of cases on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and healthcare system capacity," the agency said in a statement. "TSA will extend the security directive and emergency amendment for 15 days, through May 3, 2022."
A top White House health official said in an interview with Spectrum News that the two-week extension will give them time to assess how severe the BA.2 wave will be.
“Will those cases lead to a real substantial increase in hospitalizations and deaths? Or will they not?” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s new COVID-19 response coordinator. “We honestly don't know because the BA.2 has only become dominant in the U.S. in the last couple of weeks.”
“The CDC scientists felt that an extra 15 days would allow them to see what's happening with hospitalizations … and then make a much more data-driven decision about mask mandates on airplanes and other transportation,” he added. “My hope is that with more data, we'll be able to make a more durable decision.”
The Biden administration had been hoping to roll out a more flexible masking strategy this week that would have replaced the nationwide requirement amid calls to end the policy.
In a letter to Dr. Jha last month, the head of the U.S. Travel Association urged the Biden administration to repeal the mandate in order to "better align" with the CDC's current indoor masking policies and "encourage a faster return to business travel."
"Reasonable and effective risk-based policies can be reinstated at any time if new variants of concern emerge or if the public health situation deteriorates," U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow wrote. "However, we believe it is time for the administration to lead the country toward a new normal for travel and on a faster road to a full economic recovery."
The CEOs of major airlines, including American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue Airways and United, wrote a similar letter to the president in later March urging Biden to repeal the mandate, as well as testing requirements, saying in part that enforcing those rules is a "burden" that "has fallen on our employees for two years now."
"This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers," the airline executives wrote. "This in turn takes a toll on their own well-being."
They also cited a "persistent and steady decline" in COVID hospitalizations and deaths nationwide.
"Much has changed since these measures were imposed and they no longer make sense in the current public health context," they wrote. "Now is the time for the Administration to sunset federal transportation travel restrictions — including the international predeparture testing requirement and the federal mask mandate — that are no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment."
There has been a slight increase in cases in recent weeks, driven by the BA.2 strain, with daily confirmed cases nationwide rising from about 25,000 per day to more than 30,000. Those figures are an undercount since many people now test positive on at-home tests that are not reported to public health agencies.
Severe illnesses and deaths tend to lag infections by several weeks. The CDC is awaiting indications of whether the increase in cases correlates to a rise in adverse outcomes before announcing a less restrictive mask policy for travel.
Watch clips of Spectrum News' interview with Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator, in the video player above.