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A crucial point missing from the nation’s mask debate: Dr. Osterholm

Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH

A federal judge’s rejection of the nation’s mask mandate for public transportation has reinvigorated a national debate often presented as a black and white issue: to mask or not. However, this discussion should be more nuanced and focus on the quality of masking, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, PhD, said in an April 24 interview with ABC News.

Dr. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease, Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said the federal mask mandate checked a box for public health precautions but was not effective, since most people people wore cloth or surgical masks on public transportation, which are less effective at reducing virus transmission than N95 respirators. Many people also wore masks below their noses, which Dr. Osterholm equated to “closing only three of the five screen doors on your submarine.”

“I think that what we want to do is stop talking about masking and [talk] about effective respirator protection,” he told ABC News’ “This Week.”

Dr. Osterholm said immunocompromised individuals and others at risk of serious illness should wear N95 respirators on public transportation.

“If everybody could do that, they would keep it on through the duration of the flight, not wear it underneath their nose, then that would be a very effective way to have a mandate,” he said. “But what we’re doing is now is we are literally just basically addressing a political issue, not a science issue.”

The discussion over masking comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise nationwide, driven by the highly transmissible omicron subvariant BA.2.

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