Nate Silver Shares His Thoughts on Dropping Mask Mandates on Planes

American statistician and author Nate Silver has tweeted his support of ending the mask mandate, after federal judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down mask requirements on public transport including airplanes, trains and buses, aimed at reducing the spread of COVID.

This ends the mandate extended through to May 3 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meaning that wearing masks on such transportation will now be optional rather than mandatory.

While the move to void the mandate by Trump-appointed Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle has been actioned by many airlines, like United Airlines and Delta, as well as being celebrated by some who deemed masks unnecessary on public transport, many experts, including virologists and epidemiologists, are less positive.

In response to the news, Silver tweeted: "The average American spends something like 5 hours per year on a plane.

"The mask mandate might be good or bad at the margin, but it is very unlikely to make a major difference in the overall course of the coronavirus."

Andrew Sparling, a Ph.D. in history, specializing in the history of science and medicine, responded to Silver's tweet by calling it a "jaw-droppingly specious argument."

Sparling continued: "The chief way to restrict the spread of SARS-CoV2 is to reduce the number of superspreader events. Airplanes can be sites of such events, and when they are, they seed the virus far and wide.

"N95s or better curtail such transmission chains."

Infectious disease epidemiologist and Senior Infection Preventionist at the University of Arizona and George Mason University Saskia Popescu addressed the wider issue of the lifting of mask mandates and the fact mandates would no longer be enforced by the Transportation Security Administration.

She wrote: "Cases are rising in the U.S. and with so many public health measures relaxing, we'll likely see increasing case counts. This data also reflects an underreported number because home antigen tests aren't reported.

"Public transportation is hard to enforce infection prevention measures in - from masking to ensuring adequate ventilation."

Popescu added that this is even the case on airplanes that have great ventilation and filtration, saying masks are critical wherever there are lots of people in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time.

She continued: "Protecting the safety of those who use public transportation is critical and frankly, deciding it's not worth it is a really privileged stance to take.

"For air travel - removing masking requirements is a great way to ensure you're spreading COVID."

Popescu continued: "We may want to be done with COVID, but forcing our way through it is myopic and frankly ridiculous. People are still getting sick, going to hospitals, and dying. We need primary prevention, like masks and vaccines."

The epidemiologist added that she will continue to wear a mask on airplanes and other public transport.

Mark Jit, professor of vaccine epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told Newsweek: "For an individual, mask-wearing does reduce the chance of getting COVID, particularly if both the infected person and the potential infectee are wearing good N95 masks.

"However, on a population level, mask-wearing on public transport on its own won't be enough to prevent large and continuing COVID utbreaks in the era of the fast-spreading Omicron variant."

Jit added that the measure with the largest impact on COVID deaths is high coverage of the most effective vaccines, particularly among vulnerable groups. He concluded: "A mask mandate could help too, but it may not be sustainable or acceptable in all countries – it may depend on people's attitudes to long-term mask-wearing."

Virologist and professor at Cornell University's Weill Cornell Medicine college, John P. Moore, also responded to Silver's tweet. Moore told Newsweek: "I think he is missing the point. It's a terrible ruling from the public health perspective in the long term, which is why it will surely be appealed and overturned."

Moore added that he believes Mizelle's argument is contrived: "It has more holes in it than a mask does, and they are FAR, FAR larger. To use the word she obsesses over, masks 'sanitize' the air that passes through them, cleansing the air of virus.

"That's the point. If her argument was valid, air filters, in general, would be disallowed on the same grounds, including ones that are badly needed to improve the indoor environment in, say, schools. And air filters are routinely used in hospital settings, again to 'sanitize' the air that passes through them."

Moore continued by adding that most infections are not occurring on planes so, on narrow technical grounds, Silver is correct. He continued: "But is air travel a significant risk factor for virus transmission? Yes, it is.

"There have been multiple reports going back to 2020 of infection transmissions to nearby or even more distant from an infected index case on planes. Wearing a mask is a basic, common-sense safety precaution that is extremely easy to do and only minimally inconveniences people."

Article Updated 04/19/22 at 10:29 am EST to add comments from John P. Moore

Nate Silver
Statistician, Author and Founder of FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver speaks onstage at the ABC Leadership Breakfast panel during Advertising Week 2015. Silver recently tweeted in support of the ending of mask mandates on public transport including airlines. Slaven Vlasic/GETTY