At least 31 countries so far have reported cases of the new strains of coronavirus.
People across the United States will soon be required to wear masks on nearly all forms of public transportation, including planes, subways and buses, as the country grapples with high COVID-19 infection rates and growing concerns over new variants of the novel coronavirus.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) issued an order late on Friday that all travellers “must wear masks that completely cover both the mouth and nose” on planes, ships, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis and ride-shares.
The order, which goes into effect at 11:59 pm ET on Monday (4:59 GMT Tuesday), applies to travel into, within and out of the country.
Masks also must be worn at “transportation hubs … and other locations where people board public transportation”, the agency said.
The order comes as US President Joe Biden seeks to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control in the US, which has reported almost 26 million cases of COVID-19 and at least 437,000 coronavirus-related deaths – the highest tallies of any country in the world.
Since taking office, Biden has signed an executive order requiring masks to be worn on federal property, requiring interstate travellers to wear masks and pledging to rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO), from which former President Donald Trump withdrew.
Biden also “challenged” people across the US to wear masks for his first 100 days in office, a departure from the approach of Trump, who largely eschewed the public health measure and opposed state-wide mask mandates.
In its public transportation order, the CDC says it “reserves the right to enforce through criminal penalties” for non-compliance with the mask rule, but did not specify what those penalties could be.
The agency also said it “does not intend to rely primarily” on those penalties, “but instead strongly encourages and anticipates widespread voluntary compliance”. The requirement will be enforced by federal authorities, and “may be enforced by cooperating state and local authorities”.
The US saw a surge of coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and deaths at the end of 2020.
Recent indications that the health crisis may be levelling off have been largely overshadowed by the arrival of new, potentially more contagious, variants of the virus in the country.
On Thursday, health officials announced a variant that first appeared in South Africa had been confirmed for the first time in the US. The variant appears to spread more rapidly, as it carries a mutation that allows it more easily bind to human cells.
More infectious variants that first appeared in the United Kingdom and Brazil have also been found in the US. The Biden administration has since reinstated travel restrictions for travellers from Brazil, Ireland, the UK and South Africa, among other countries.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said the new variants underscore the need for people to be as vaccinated as soon as possible.
He expressed optimism over recent clinical studies of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, which is now seeking emergency use authorisation.
Biden has said his administration will increase its involvement in vaccine distribution at the state level, a system that he said was “in worse shape than we anticipated” when he took office on January 20. His administration has said it plans to investigate vaccine shortages in some regions.
To date, at least 49 million vaccines have been distributed to US states, with just under 28 million doses administered, according to CDC data.