Immunocompromised people concerned after transit mask mandate dropped

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- When news broke Monday that a federal judge struck down the mask mandate for public transit, it hit differently for Dana Bengston's family in Johnston County.

"If there's not a mandate, then there's a lot of people making choices that could seriously negatively impact our family," Bengston said.

Dropping the masks on planes, trains and buses is bringing up a whole new set of concerns for families like the Bengstons -- people who may need to sit next to a person on a plane and find a way to ask -- could you please wear a mask because they're going home to someone with a compromised immune system. And catching COVID-19 is not a viable option.

In 2018, Bengston's husband, Kris, battled an aggressive form of throat cancer. Then last fall, came the scary diagnosis for the couple's 5-year-old daughter, Julia. It's leukemia.

"She has no immune system right now. And my husband is immunocompromised from his stage four cancer," she said. "We're gonna mask up and we're going to do what we need to do.

"We have not had an argument with anyone about asking them to wear it," she added. "We're also very, very careful about where we go."

UNC-Chapel Hill infectious disease specialist Dr. David Wohl spoke to ABC11 via Zoom, Tuesday night, from West Africa. The Chapel Hill doctor is in the midst of a research mission in Liberia. When he flew there last weekend, the airline mask mandate was still in place.

"I'm disappointed that I'm going to be placed at that risk on my way back," said Wohl who disagrees with the timing of dropping the mandate as COVID cases tick back up. But he has to fly home.

Wohl offered for tips to travel safer. "The good news is even one-way masking is protective. We know that" he said. "I wear my surgical mask. I have a cloth mask that goes on top of it. This pushes the surgical mask against my face better so there's no gaps."

He even has a COVID strategy for the in-flight drink service.

"When people are eating and drinking, I don't even drink. I wait," he said. "I'll wait till everyone's done. And then I will take off my mask for a very short period of time to do that. I don't want to synchronize with everyone maskless at the same time, and me breathing in that air."

Back at the Bengstons, Dana is counting on compassion.

"Nobody knows exactly what's going on in someone's life or who they're in charge of taking care of," she said. "If you're asked to wear a mask, just wear it. Just have compassion."

Wohl also recommends traveling with a few of those rapid COVID tests that so many people received from the federal government. If you're feeling symptoms while traveling, Wohl suggests not just testing once. Test the next day as well.
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