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Iowa U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks has claimed in recent weeks there is no scientific evidence supporting continued use of coronavirus mitigation strategies in certain public settings.
The freshman representative for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, who also is a licensed physician, is among dozens of House Republicans who sent a letter to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling for an immediate end to mask mandates on public transportation.
In a tweet dated March 10, Miller-Meeks specifically targeted the Transportation Security Administration’s decision to extend its mask mandate for airports and other transportation hubs across the country, based on recommendations from the CDC.
“There is no scientific reason for the TSA to extend the current mask mandate, especially given the high-quality air filtration technology on planes and the new CDC guidance,” she wrote.
Miller-Meeks is referring to the TSA’s announcement that it was extending its mask requirement for public transportation and transportation hubs for an extra month based on CDC recommendations. It had been set to expire March 18.
The decision for public transportation varies from new guidance from the CDC allowing the majority of Americans to unmask in other public spaces, as long as they are in a county with “low” or “medium” COVID-19 transmission rates. Transmission levels are determined based on current caseloads and overall hospital capacity, among other factors.
In addition to reduced virus activity, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last month the guidance also reflects the lowered risk from COVID-19 because of widespread immunity from vaccines or prior infections.
In response to the Fact Checker’s inquiry, a spokesman for Miller-Meeks’ office said the representative “is fully aware of the science and agrees with it that masks can help slow transmission and protect immunocompromised individuals.”
Instead, Miller-Meeks was calling into question the logic behind the CDC’s decision to end mask mandates in certain public settings but not in others, said Will Kiley, communications director for Miller-Meeks’ office. In an email, he wrote given the agency’s stance on mask use indoors, “it makes little sense” to continue wearing masks on public transportation but not in other public settings.
“The Congresswoman fully supports anyone who wishes to wear a mask 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 planes, I think you’re safer on an airplane than you are in a restaurant or at the gym.”
Even with the declining prevalence of virus activity nationwide, traveling on public transportation increases a person’s risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, according to the CDC.
In a brief published Feb. 25, federal health officials say it’s often difficult to stay 6 feet away from others while using public transportation, meaning people are brought into close contact for prolonged periods and are exposed to frequently-touched surfaces.
“People may not be able to distance themselves by the recommended minimum of 6 feet from other people seated nearby or from those standing in or passing through the aisles on airplanes, trains, or buses,” the CDC brief states.
The CDC did not offer specific evidence to how the risk on public transportation varies from other settings, though it has published research on the effectiveness of mask use in general.
There’s also not much research overall specifically targeted on this subject, leading an epidemiologist from the Columbia University Irving Medical Center to say experts don’t have enough evidence to determine whether there is increased risk associated with public transportation.
But it is true that individuals may have less opportunity to socially distance in airplanes compared with other public spaces, such as the gym or a restaurant. Because of that, many airlines have implemented other coronavirus mitigation measures, including air filtration systems referenced in the representative’s tweet.
According to the International Air Transport Association, most modern aircraft have high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, a mechanical air filter that rids the air of dust, bacteria and other small airborne particles.
These types of filters can help reduce airborne contaminants, including particles containing viruses, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While they aid in reducing transmission, these systems by themselves are not enough to protect people from the coronavirus. Broadly, public health experts agree that a layered mitigation approach is the most effective strategy against coronavirus transmission.
Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health say use of face masks in combination with other measures, such as ventilation and disinfecting surfaces, offers “significant protection from acquiring COVID-19 through air travel.”
Miller-Meeks is incorrect that there is “no scientific reason” supporting mask mandates. There is plenty of evidence highlighting the benefits of continued mask use in public, high-traffic areas such as on airplanes or busy transportation hubs. Whether it’s logical for federal health officials to recommend mask use in one setting but not another is open for debate. But there still is research and other evidence to support the decision.
This claim that there is “no scientific reason” earns an F.
The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate or officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.
Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.
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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.