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How are unionized flight attendants responding to the new COVID rules?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, Delta's CEO, as we mentioned, may have wanted a shorter isolation time, but the Association of Flight Attendants does not. They have called the revisions the wrong move, and the Association of Flight Attendants president, Sara Nelson, is our next guest. Good morning.

SARA NELSON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with five days?

NELSON: The problem is that we are admitting that we're going to put infectious people back into the workplace or on our planes. We were really concerned because Delta was proposing this as they were talking about staffing shortages. Director Walensky has recognized that, once again, in her comments that this was in response to the concerns from the business community. And we want to be focused on public health and ending this pandemic. So we're very concerned about this, and we are pressing the airlines to have policies that are much better than what the CDC is giving as a minimum standard.

INSKEEP: Let's interrogate something you said there. You said we're admitting we're going to put infectious people back onto planes. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, has said generally speaking, people who are infectious are infectious for three days, not five days. And so if you test positive, five days in most cases, if not all cases, should be enough. And in those limited cases where somebody is infectious longer, they're wearing a mask. What is she missing?

NELSON: Well, of course, we found out that the CDC's own science wasn't correct in which strain of coronavirus was the most dominant in the United States. We were still operating with delta as the most dominant, not omicron. So there's evolving science here. We also understand that these variants are cropping up as the virus is continuing to exist and in most cases is really not good enough. That's exactly recognizing that there will be some people who are still infectious who are coming back to work. That's exactly what we're saying. So we're saying we need to be very careful here.

And even the airlines that were pressing for this reduction from 10 days to five days were saying that it should only be for breakthrough cases and - after testing. So there are holes here that give us a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainty. And that is the last thing that we need. Uncertainty has led to violence on our planes. It has led to people not trusting the government and not knowing what to do. It has led to people not getting vaccinated. And so all of this is really a concern if we're talking about the long-term goal here of ending this pandemic.

INSKEEP: What about the - I mean, we talk about Delta Air Lines; we could name any number of airlines that had hundreds of canceled flights just over Christmas. What about their concern about simply keeping the economy going, keeping the planes in the air?

NELSON: Well, I think then we're choosing the economy over public health. And let's be really clear - there were other airlines that negotiated with us for incentives for people to come to work. Delta does - is the only airline - only major airline that flight attendants don't have a contract, and they did not offer those incentives. So there are other ways to deal with this, and they don't need to ask the government to clean up their mess in core planning.

INSKEEP: In just a few seconds, what do you make of the discussion of a possible vaccine requirement to board a plane - which, to be clear, is not something the government is doing, but many people are calling for?

NELSON: We support this in principle, but we also understand that there has to be a way to check vaccine status and not have this backed up. And in this country, we have not kept track of vaccine status so that there's an easy way to do that. We think it's more important than ever with these new guidelines from the CDC that we all get together and try to make that work. But right now, that's not possible.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the question is how you would find out that the person with the boarding pass is also vaccinated and can prove it.

Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants, thanks so much.

NELSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And since there was a dispute about the science there, let's go even a little bit deeper. We've brought back NPR's Allison Aubrey. And Allison, what did you make of the criticism of the CDC's science there?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: You know, she said the CDC's own science wasn't correct on which variant was most dominant, though it's important to point out that the CDC had said its early omicron numbers were an estimate. As new numbers came in, they revised that estimate and landed on about 59% of cases last week. It's not a mistake as much as it is an update based on new data. And indeed, omicron does make up most of the cases.

INSKEEP: The real question here, though, is, what does the science show about five days?

AUBREY: All of the infectious disease experts I spoke to yesterday say the five-day isolation rule is reasonable given the accumulating evidence if people mask up and, ideally, take a test. So bottom line - the five-day policy is most likely to succeed if people follow this guidance. It's not guaranteed that people are not infectious, but a mask offers that extra layer of protection.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.