The former chief of the Food and Drug Administration predicted Wednesday that the federal mask mandate for airplanes and other public transportation will be lifted next month if the US isn’t battling a COVID-19 surge fueled by the highly contagious Omicron subvariant BA.2.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who ran the Food and Drug Administration from 2017 to 2019, said he expected President Biden’s mask mandate for federal public transportation to be lifted when it expires on April 18.
“If we’re not in thick of another wave of BA.2 infection in the middle of April, I think they will go ahead and lift that,” Gottlieb told CNBC. “I think the uncertainty around that is we are starting to see infections start to creep up. If it kind of levels off in the next couple of weeks, which it may, I think the administration will go ahead and lift that.”
The Biden administration seemingly “backed into” the April 18 deadline, Gottlieb said, after extending it earlier this month on the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The move means Americans will still need face coverings on planes, trains and buses, as well as inside public transportation facilities until at least the middle of next month.
Gottlieb said he agreed with lifting the mandate if the BA.2 Omicron subvariant that’s been detected in dozens of countries isn’t raging in the US.
“My view was that they should lift that requirement on airlines,” Gottlieb told the outlet.
But if infections continue to rise in early April, the mandate would likely be extended, Gottlieb reiterated.
“They’re going to be hard-pressed to lift that and they’ll probably kick it out another month,” Gottlieb said of that possible scenario. “If we’re actually seeing a wave of infection — we’re unclear how large it’s going to be — I think it’s very hard to lift it in that kind of a backdrop, so you’ll probably extend it a month.”
While Gottlieb said infections in the US are rising, it’s not a dramatic spike and they’re starting to drop in Western Europe — perhaps signaling brighter days ahead in the ongoing global pandemic fight.
“So it could be that this BA.2 wave that we’ve expected could be a brief wave — it won’t be a very big wave of infection — and against that backdrop, I think they can continue to lift it,” Gottlieb said of the federal mask mandate.
The CEOs of major US airlines, meanwhile, called on President Biden to drop the “outdated” mask requirement on planes and at airports in an open letter last week, claiming they no longer “make sense” as hospitalization and death rates steadily decline.
At least 974,277 COVID-19 deaths have been tallied in the US as of Sunday, according to CDC data. The daily case average stands at 27,594 — down from 806,345 in mid-January — as some 65.5 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, CDC figures show.