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Delta updates its statement calling COVID a 'seasonal virus' after a backlash

Delta updated its statement Tuesday to remove the reference to "an ordinary, seasonal virus." A spokesperson told NPR over email that it had done so "for clarity and accuracy."
Yuki Iwamura
AFP via Getty Images
Delta updated its statement Tuesday to remove the reference to "an ordinary, seasonal virus." A spokesperson told NPR over email that it had done so "for clarity and accuracy."

Delta Air Lines has updated its announcement about the end of the federal mask mandate after igniting a firestorm of criticism from public health experts who said it used inaccurate and misleading language to describe COVID-19.

"We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus," the airline said in the original version of its Monday statement.

Passengers, medical experts and public health leaders promptly turned to social media to dispute the claim and call out the lack of scientific evidence behind it. Delta updated its statement at 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday, with a spokesperson telling NPR over email that it had done so "for clarity and accuracy" and declining to comment further.

The updated paragraph reads: "We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 transitions to a more manageable respiratory virus — with better treatments, vaccines and other scientific measures to prevent serious illness."

Still, Delta leadership has used similar language in recent days.

The airline ended its $200 monthly surcharge on unvaccinated employees' company health insurance this month, CNBC reported. CEO Ed Bastian announced the policy change on a call last week, in which he said the decision was made "given the fact that we really do believe that the pandemic has moved to a seasonal virus."

Public health experts and passengers took to Twitter to fact-check the claim and express their disappointment.

"I don't care what you think about masking, but Delta's comment that #SARSCOV2 has transitioned to become an 'ordinary seasonal virus' is just bonkers, has no basis in science and is outright misinformation misleading their customers (of which I am one!)," wrote Yale epidemiologist and global health activist Gregg Gonsalves.

Many pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made no such assessment of COVID-19, which has killed more than 980,000 Americans in two years, continues to infect thousands of people daily and is surging again in parts of the country. Critics also emphasized that the federal mandate was ended by a judge's ruling rather than any new medical or scientific developments.

Others said Delta's claim disrespects those who lost their lives to the virus and noted many people — especially those who are immunocompromised and otherwise vulnerable — still remain at risk.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist, described Delta's statement as misinformation and nonsense. He pointed out that new pandemic deaths have surpassed 20 million, and that global deaths are "still incredibly above normal."

"My source says that Delta did not consult with its senior medical advisor before releasing this misinformation," he added. "Hope Delta will correct ASAP!"

Jessica Malaty Rivera, a science communicator and senior advisor at the Pandemic Prevention Institute, noted that " 'ordinary' viruses don't cause 1 million deaths in one country in just 2 years."

Critics also took issue with the use of the word "seasonal," pointing out that the virus has surged in waves throughout each year and remains able to infect people in any given season.

"This news just in from the public health experts at Delta Airlines. Based on the judge's ruling, COVID is now a 'seasonal virus,' " tweeted Andy Slavitt, former advisor on Biden's pandemic response team. "No word yet on which 'season.' "

Dr. Victoria Dooley, a family medicine doctor, added that not only does the virus infect and kill people throughout the year, but it can also have lasting impacts on those who do recover.

"Which season? All of them," she wrote. "How ordinary? So ordinary it's killing 100's daily & leaving 1000's disabled."

Many social media users said that Delta has permanently lost their business as a result, with several pledging never to fly on the airline again and one calling their messaging outright "chilling." Another said she had just cancelled a direct Delta flight in favor of a connecting flight on another airline, and would "never go back."

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 19, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
The number of Americans killed by COVID-19 totals more than 980,000, according to the CDC.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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