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Public transportation passengers should consider continuing to wear masks, a Duke expert says

Though a federal judge struck down mask mandates for public transportation this week, a Duke infectious disease specialist said Thursday that passengers should still consider wearing them.

For people who must take public transportation to work, “I think there are still plenty of compelling reasons why they should think carefully about masks,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an associate professor at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, Duke University

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, Duke University

The U.S. Justice Department is appealing the court decision.

Airline passengers have been the focus of this week’s reports on mask mandate developments.

Airline studies early in the pandemic found that cabin airflow reduces the risk of passengers becoming infected, Wolfe said, but studies also show that there’s still a risk if the person in the next seat is infected.

“You need to assume public transportation risk is non-zero,” he said Thursday in an online question-and-answer session with reporters.

A week’s worth of information on North Carolina COVID-19 cases the state released Wednesday shows new cases increased from 4,851 to 7,279. The totals are an undercount because the popularity of home tests means that many positive cases are not reported. The percentage of people going to hospital emergency rooms with COVID systems has remained steady at 2% for more than a month, according to DHHS.

The omicron subvariant BA.2 accounts for most cases identified by genetic sequencing in North Carolina over last month.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is becoming more contagious as it evolves, but is not causing more serious illness, the Duke experts said.

“As far as we can tell, the vaccines are still very effective against all of the variants,” said David Montefiori, a Duke professor who has studied the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s important to get boosted for protection against the omicron variants.”

State health officials have estimated that more than 90% of North Carolinians have some immunity to COVID-19, either through vaccinations or previous infections.

High “population immunity” means high rates of COVD hospitalizations and death are unlikely, Montefiori said. It’s important to keep track of new variants, he said, but not obsess over all of them.

“We just have to get used to the fact that this virus is going to be with us for a long time and it’s going to continue to evolve,” he said.

More time is needed to understand how much of a problem waning immunity represents, Montefiori said. And a question remains whether a variant emerges against which the existing vaccines are ineffective.

“It will be more important that vaccines change to keep up with that new variant should a variant  emerge that does effectively escape our vaccines,” he said.

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