As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on and the Omicron variant spreads, vaccines are increasingly becoming a prerequisite for participating in daily life. In cities like Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., proof of vaccination is required to dine indoors, go to the gym or visit a museum, concert venue or movie theater. But in one industry a vaccine requirement is conspicuously absent: air travel.
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, said that when it comes to curbing transmission during air travel, he was far more concerned about proper mask usage on planes. “If you look at wearing a mask and the filtration on planes, things are reasonably safe,” he said. “We want to make sure people keep their masks on. Taking the mask off, in my mind, is really not something we should even be considering.”
Still, such a requirement would be another mechanism to spur hesitant people to get the vaccine, Fauci said. “Anything that could get people vaccinated would be welcome.”
Earlier this week, in an MSNBC interview, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a vaccination requirement “might delay flights,” but the administration would still take the step “if the health impact was overwhelming.”
Asked by a reporter on Dec. 3 whether he was considering vaccine requirements for domestic travel, Biden said no.
“I think I know a fair amount about this issue. But I’m not a scientist,” he said, according to the New York Post. “So I continue to rely on the scientists…Right now, they’re saying no.”
Individual airlines can mandate vaccines for their own staff, but the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to impose a vaccine mandate for travelers on domestic flights. (In early November, the CDC began requiring all non-immigrant, non-citizen air travelers to the United States to be fully vaccinated; everyone else must show a negative test taken within 24 hours.)
The question of requiring vaccines for air travel has become more urgent with the spread of the Omicron COVID variant. Due to the extremely transmissible strain of the virus, passengers on a typical flight are two to three times more likely to become infected than they were just a few months ago, when Delta was dominant, Fortune reported last week.
Passengers aren’t the only ones at risk. Over the holiday weekend, nearly 1,000 flights from Delta, United, and JetBlue were canceled due to dwindling staff and Omicron outbreaks. A United spokesperson told Fortune it was unclear when normal operations would return, adding that the cancellations and staff shortages were “unexpected.”
The Omicron variant now accounts for over 70% of all new cases in the U.S., and while hospital-grade air filters on most planes lower the risk significantly, increased air travel around the holidays may nonetheless make boarding a plane risky.
Last week, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Representatives Don Beyer (D-Va.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) called on President Biden and CDC director Rochelle Walensky to require vaccination or a negative test for all domestic flights.
“Travel at our nation’s airports has essentially returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the [COVID-19 risk] continues to present a major public health threat,” they wrote in a Dec. 20 letter. “Requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for domestic flights would improve public health and address concerns that passengers have about flying.”
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