'Short-sighted' and 'ill-timed': 8 healthcare leaders react to federal mask ruling

Many health experts expressed concern over how the CDC's authority might be diluted in future outbreaks after a federal judge in Florida struck down the nation's mask mandate for public transportation April 18. 

Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle's ruling leaves it up to individual airlines and local transit agencies to decide whether to keep or drop the mask requirements. Many of the nation's major airlines said they were dropping their mask requirements following the ruling. 

The ruling said the federal transportation mask mandate "exceeds the CDC's statutory authority." It focuses on the agency's use of the word "sanitation," saying the CDC uses a broad definition, and that wearing a mask "cleans nothing." 

Here are eight health experts' responses to the ruling: 

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity. They are presented in alphabetical order. 

Richard Besser, MD. President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Former Acting Director of the CDC: "If this ruling stands, it could put the American public at great risk," he told The New York Times. He expressed concern about the ruling's "implications for future crises, of the ability to put in place simple public health measures to keep people safe."

David Freedman, MD. Professor Emeritus of Infections Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham: "You can quote me on this: I'm going to continue to wear an N95 mask," Dr. Freedman told The Washington Post. "No question. You have no idea who's on a plane." 

Dr. Lakshmi Ganapathi. Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at Boston Children's Hospital: "I think it's extremely shortsighted and, if I were impolite would say, kind of stupid," she told the Times, citing rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S. "This ruling is ill-timed, and it's not commensurate with public health principles."

William Holubek, MD. Chief Medical Officer of University Hospital (Newark, N.J.): "The decision to not wear a mask or social distance by those who are up-to-date with vaccinations largely relies on personal risk. For those who are not immunocompromised and don't have medical conditions that put them at high risk, their threshold for contracting the current COVID-19 BA.2 subvariant may be lower than others; people still need to understand that there are consequences from COVID-19 that are still poorly understood and can cause significant harm and morbidity, such as symptoms from long-COVID or chronic COVID."

Ashish Jha, MD. White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator: "This was deeply disappointing. CDC scientists had asked for 15 days to make a more data-driven durable decision. We should have given it to them. But I'll continue to follow CDC guidance & mask up on planes," he tweeted April 19.

Megan Ranney, MD. Emergency Medicine Physician and Academic Dean at Brown University School of Public Health (Providence, R.I.): ​​"There are many aspects of this ruling that concern and frustrate me. But my biggest worry? What this means for future respiratory pandemics and new variants," she tweeted April 19. 

Eric Topol, MD. Founder and Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute (San Diego): "A judge should not be the decider of public health matters," Dr. Topol tweeted. "In due course, masks should be optional. But not when we're in the midst of the BA.2 (and BA2.12.1) wave." In a separate tweet, Dr. Topol shared a photo of himself wearing a surgical mask at the airport, writing, "At the airport with no interest for a visit with BA.2 or serving as an asymptomatic vector. Tight fit KN94 underneath." 

Robert Wachter, MD. Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco: "I think the threshold for a mandate has to be fairly high, and I think the situation changed enough, so it was reasonable to at least consider removing the mandate," he told the Post. "To have it be done by a judge rather than public health authorities just strikes me as wrong and a very dangerous precedent." 


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