Apr 20, 2022 - Podcasts

Mask mandates disappear as COVID cases rise

If you’re traveling in the U.S. — whether it's by plane, bus, or train, you're no longer required to wear a mask. The change comes after a federal judge earlier this week struck down the Biden administration’s public transit mask mandate.

Almost immediately, airlines and other transportation companies like Amtrak and Uber lifted their mask requirements as well. These announcements come as COVID cases are starting to tick back up — 43% in the last two weeks.

  • Plus, the link between how much energy we consume and our health and happiness.
  • And, American Airlines resumes practice flights for kids who have autism.

Guests: Axios' Tina Reed and Ben Geman.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Wednesday April 20th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: the link between how much energy we consume and happiness. Plus, American Airlines resumes practice flights for kids who have autism.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: mask mandates disappear as covid cases rise.

If you're traveling in the U.S., whether it's by plane, train, or bus, you're no longer required to wear a mask. The change comes after a federal judge earlier this week struck down the Biden administration's mask mandate on public transit. And almost immediately airlines and companies like Amtrak and Uber lifted their mask requirements as well. These announcements come as COVID cases are starting to tick back up: a 43% increase in the last two weeks. Here to walk us through both of these news stories is Axios’ health care editor Tina Reed. Hi Tina.

TINA REED: Hi Niala.

NIALA: At least anecdotally from listeners who have been texting me all this week, I have heard from listeners all across the country from North Carolina to Oklahoma and Massachusetts, and the general trend seems to be that people are done with wearing masks. Here's Jonathan in Colorado:

JONATHAN: In my community we have basically come to the understanding that if you know, you are at extremely high risk or for whatever reason, you just can't tolerate catching COVID, um, then you should be wearing a KN-95 mask. So it's really protect yourself and let other people protect themselves. We're kind of going back to treating people as adults, which is pretty welcome.

NIALA: How are public health officials responding to this sentiment - do they agree with the removal of mask mandates - or people just not wearing masks anymore?

TINA: So while public health experts have been pretty open to the idea that as case rates drop, it's reasonable to remove our masks, they have not been thrilled with this decision. Um, there's a couple of reasons for that. Uh, first of all, they have reiterated like the goal of public health is to think about the collective, the public rather than the individual and there are still a lot of vulnerable individuals out there who could be impacted by this. Um, secondly, they feel like the timing really isn't great as we worry about the continued spread of the subvariant of Omicron, and now we've got subvariants of the subvariant. Um, so we've got some areas of the country where cases are surging. There are some areas of the country where hospitalizations are rising. And so, the time right now to remove these mask mandates just doesn't seem right to many of them. Um, and third, a lot of them are concerned this sets a bad precedent, um, that the CDC or other agencies won't have the authority in the future to enact mandates during a public health emergency.

NIALA: This idea that cases are on the rise, but it's also important to note hospitalizations and deaths are actually decreasing. So what does that look like across the country?

TINA: So what we see as in certain pockets of the country, we are seeing this uptick in, in cases, and hospitalizations have largely remained flat. That's largely because of vaccinations. That's largely because a lot of people have had omicron now, or some version of COVID. COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. right now are still somewhere between 400 and 500 a day, which is still far too high. Um, and there is a growing acknowledgement of, um, long COVID cases and this long-term impact it's having on people who have had COVID. And so I think we're sort of shifting our focus right now in terms of, of what we see happening and what we're most concerned about.

NIALA: For parents of kids under five, who are worried because their children have not been authorized to be vaccinated yet. How is the CDC prioritizing that?

TINA: So, unfortunately it seems like the booster question is getting prioritized before kids' vaccinations. What I mean by that is we certainly see a lot of movement happening with the FDA and the CDC really examining who should get boosters and when. Um, we had an announcement this week that both Pfizer, Moderna are looking at boosters for kids as young as five. But we don't yet have information in terms of when we should expect vaccines for kids five and under. And that's been really frustrating for parents, I think. Right now the latest is Madonna, um, has said it's close to requesting FDA authorization for, um, it's two dose vaccine, but its CEO has said that means it could be a matter of months, not a matter of weeks until kids could get those shots in arms. So that was really the biggest frustration that I heard from folks this week was actually from parents who, um, really just want to get their kid protected, and they're still waiting on their shots for their, their littlest kids, um, even as we're unwinding some of these protections from the pandemic.

NIALA: Axios’ healthcare editor Tina Reed. Thanks, Tina.

TINA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: And by the way, if you have long COVID, Tina would really appreciate hearing from you. If that's the case and you're willing to share your story, would you drop a text to me? The number is (202) 918-4893.

In a moment, why Americans can cut their energy consumption and still be happy - and healthy.

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NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

People are better off when they have access to energy, but how much energy do we need to be using to be happy? Far less than the average energy use in the U.S. and other developed countries. That's according to a new study out of Stanford. Axios’ Ben Geman is here to explain more. Ben, what does the study say about energy usage and how important it is not just to happiness but life expectancy?

BEN GEMAN: So I think the study was interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it overwhelmingly confirmed something that I think is sort of intuitively obvious, which is that energy use and wellbeing in terms of both happiness and wealth and economic indicators and things like, life expectancy and infant mortality, and a lot of health metrics are very much tethered to energy access.

So essentially the more energy you have access to, the better off you're going to be. Now that link is very strong. What's really interesting though, is that at some point, that link begins to fray. What the study finds is that there is an incredibly strong relationship between access to energy and human wellbeing in terms of economic well being, in terms of health, and in terms of happiness. So when you have access to energy, you're going to be better off. There's no disputing that. However, what's really interesting and what the authors acknowledged was honestly surprising to them, is that the point at which this connective tissue starts to fray between increased energy access and increased well being is at a level that is significantly lower than the average energy consumption in a lot of big wealthy developed countries, including the United States.

NIALA: What are the policy implications of this then?

BEN: One is that as global energy demand grows, this can in theory at least perhaps take some of the pressure off the need for the massive infrastructure build out that's necessary. A lot of it's going to be needed, but perhaps not as much as we thought. I think another big takeaway for me is that look, I mean, let's, let's face it. There is simply not political support in the United States and a lot of other places for climate change and environmental policies that would erode quality of life, right? Like there's very little acceptance for a trade off there. And what these results show is that we can both cut emissions essentially, you know, clean up our environment in a lot of ways and have a climate-friendly energy system in a way that relies on less energy than we use right now in a lot of countries, including the U.S., without sacrificing quality of life. And I think that's important both in terms of the ultimate energy that we're going to need in the world, but also in terms of the ability to get policies politically over the finish line that helped to cut emissions.

NIALA: Ben Geman is an energy reporter at Axios.

Before we go today - one more thing that’s resuming in this era of the pandemic: American Airlines has brought back its practice flights for kids and adults with special needs. Designed especially for people who have autism or anxiety issues, it’s a dry run that includes going through security and getting on the plane where pilots power up the engines and taxi around the airport. Disability Scoop newsletter reports more than 6,000 passengers have used the American program since it started back in 2014 - but it’s been on a pause for the past two years.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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