Fact Checker: Does science support mask use on airplanes?

U.S. Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, speaks Sept. 18, 2021, during her Tailgate Celebration fundraiser at Streb Construction in Iowa City. (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)

U.S. Representative from Iowa Mariannette Miller-Meeks has claimed in recent weeks that there is no scientific evidence supporting the continued use of coronavirus mitigation strategies in some public places.

The freshman representative from Iowa’s 2nd congressional district, who is also a licensed physician, is among dozens of House Republicans who have sent a letter to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling for an end immediate mask mandates on public transport.

In a tweet from March 10Miller-Meeks specifically targeted the Transportation Security Administration’s decision to expand its mask mandate for airports and other transportation hubs across the country, based on CDC recommendations.

“There is no scientific reason for the TSA to extend the current mandate for masks, especially given the high-quality air filtration technology on airplanes and new CDC guidelines,” he said. -she writes.


Miller-Meeks is referring to the TSA’s announcement that it was extending its mask requirement for public transportation and transportation hubs for an additional month based on CDC recommendations. It was due to expire on March 18.

The decision for public transportation varies according to new CDC guidelines allowing the majority of Americans to unmask in other public spaces, as long as they are in a county with “low” COVID-19 transmission rates or “means”. Transmission levels are determined based on the number of current cases and overall hospital capacity, among other factors.

In addition to reduced viral activity, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last month that the guidelines also reflected reduced risk of COVID-19 due to widespread immunity from vaccines or infections. previous.

In response to the Fact Checker’s investigation, a spokesperson for Miller-Meeks’ office said the rep “fully appreciates the science and agrees with it that masks can help slow transmission and protect immunocompromised people”.

Instead, Miller-Meeks was questioning the logic behind the CDC’s decision to end mask mandates in some public places but not others, said Will Kiley, director of communications for Miller-Meeks’ office. . In an email, he wrote given the agency’s stance on indoor mask use, “it doesn’t make sense” to continue wearing masks on public transport but not in other public places.

“The congresswoman fully supports anyone who wishes to wear a mask by wearing one, but it should be optional,” Kiley said in an email. “We know that masks do not prevent transmission, even if you are fully vaccinated. As the congresswoman noted, given the high level and quality of air filtration on airplanes, I believe you are safer on an airplane than in a restaurant or at the gym.

Even with the decline in the prevalence of virus activity nationwide, traveling on public transportation increases the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, according to the CDC.

In a brief released Feb. 25, federal health officials say it’s often difficult to stay 6 feet from others when using public transportation, which means people are brought into close contact during long periods of time and are exposed to frequently touched surfaces.

“People may not be able to distance themselves from the recommended minimum of 6 feet from other people sitting nearby or from those standing in or crossing the aisles of planes, trains, or buses,” the CDC brief states.

The CDC did not provide specific evidence on how risk on public transportation varies compared to other settings, although it did publish research on the effectiveness of mask use in general.

There’s also not a lot of comprehensive research specifically targeted on this topic, leading an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center to say that experts don’t have enough evidence to determine whether there is an increased risk associated with public transport.

But it is true that individuals may have fewer opportunities to socially distance themselves on airplanes compared to other public spaces, such as the gym or a restaurant. For this reason, many airlines have implemented other coronavirus mitigation measures, including air filtration systems referenced in the rep’s tweet.

According to the International Air Transport Association, most modern airplanes are equipped with high-efficiency particulate filters (HEPA), a mechanical air filter that rids the air of dust, bacteria and other small airborne particles. in the air.

These types of filters can help reduce airborne contaminants, including virus-containing particles, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Although they help reduce transmission, these systems alone are not enough to protect people from the coronavirus. Generally speaking, public health experts agree that a layered mitigation approach is the most effective strategy against coronavirus transmission.

Researchers from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health say the use of face masks in combination with other measures, such as ventilation and surface disinfection, provides “significant protection against the acquisition of COVID-19 by air travel.


Miller-Meeks is wrong to say there is “no scientific reason” to support mask mandates. There is ample evidence pointing to the benefits of continued mask use in high-traffic public areas, such as airplanes or busy transportation hubs. Whether it makes sense for federal health officials to recommend mask use in one setting but not another is up for debate. But there is still research and other evidence to back up the decision.

This assertion that there is “no scientific reason” is worth an F.


The Fact Checker team verifies statements made by an Iowa political candidate or office holder or national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our marketplace.

Claims must be independently verifiable. We assign statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim that you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

The members of the Fact Checker team are Elijah Decious, Erin Jordan, Marissa Payne and Michaela Ramm. This fact checker was researched and written by Michaela Ramm.

Comments are closed.