▶ Watch Video: Omicron subvariant causes uptick in U.S. COVID cases

Washington — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Wednesday it will extend its nationwide mask requirement for passengers on planes and public transportation through May 3, citing the need to assess the impact of a new coronavirus subvariant that is driving most COVID-19 infections in the U.S.

The mask mandate was set to expire April 18, but the Biden administration will keep the requirement in place for another 15 days amid the rise in cases driven by the new BA.2 sublineage of the Omicron variant, which makes up more than 85% of U.S. infections.

“In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC order will remain in place at this time,” the CDC said in a statement.

The decision to keep the mandate in place into early May comes as Republican lawmakers and executives at the nation’s top airlines pushed the Biden administration to lift the masking requirements after there was a severe drop in cases beginning in mid-January. But the new subvariant of the Omicron strain has led to a slight uptick in reported infections, driving outbreaks in the Northeast and parts of Florida. 

Still, most of the country has low COVID-19 community levels, according to the CDC. Levels are determined by examining the percentage of hospital beds used by patients with COVID-19, the rate of new hospital admissions and rate of new cases in the community.

Still, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, told “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the nation is likely “dramatically undercounting cases” with many Americans taking at-home COVID-19 tests, the results of which are mostly not reported to public health agencies.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Monday that extending the travel mask mandate was “on the table,” even as states lifted indoor mask requirements in the wake of the drop in new infections following the mid-January peak.

Airlines began requiring passengers to wear face masks in 2020, and the CDC issued the federal requirement for public transit in January 2021 after President Biden assumed office. But the mandate on airplanes has been a source of conflict, and flight attendants have been left to enforce it. Carriers reporting 1,150 unruly passenger incidents so far this year, 744 of which were related to face masks, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.