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Do you need to wear a mask on airplanes? Here's what the WHO is saying

Countries need to consider telling passengers on long-haul flights they need to wear masks to protect against a rapidly spreading version of COVID-19, a World Health Organization official said.

Countries need to consider telling passengers on long-haul flights they need to wear masks to protect against a rapidly spreading version of COVID-19, a World Health Organization official said. (Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Countries need to consider telling passengers on long-haul flights they need to wear masks to protect against a rapidly spreading version of COVID-19, a World Health Organization official said.

"This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread COVID-19 transmission, " Catherine Smallwood, the WHO's senior emergency officer for Europe, told reporters Tuesday, according to Reuters news service.

Smallwood also said "countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing," but added that any "travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner."

She said the United Nations agency was not yet recommending testing for passengers from the United States, Reuters reported.

Her advice comes as the omicron subvariant known as XBB.1.5 is being seen in Europe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had declared XBB.1.5 the dominant version of COVID-19 in the United States by the end of the year, accounting for some 40% of cases, but has since revised that number to 18%.

The most recent CDC estimates show XBB.1.5 is responsible for nearly 28% of U.S. cases for the week ending Jan. 7, behind another omicron subvariant, BQ.1.1, that along with another BQ subvariant have dominated here since November.

The latest subvariant, nicknamed "Kraken" after the sea monster in Scandinavian folklore, is believed to be the most transmissible to date, but there's no indication it causes more severe illness.

Concerns over XBB.1.5 come as China is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by other variants of the virus. China has been criticized for not providing adequate data about the impact of the virus after abruptly ending its stringent "zero COVID" policies.

That's already led to some new recommendations for airline passengers. Tuesday, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency issued new guidelines on flights between China and countries in the E.U. in response to China's "worsening" COVID-19 situation.

The European Union agency recommendations include "non-pharmaceutical measures to reduce the spread of the virus, such as mask-wearing and testing of travelers, as well as monitoring of wastewater as an early warning tool to detect new variants."

Another E.U. entity, the Integrated Political Crisis Response group, issued a similar advisory last week, and a number of countries, including the United States, are requiring passengers on flights from China to show a negative COVID-19 test.

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Lisa Riley Roche

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