All your coronavirus travel questions answered8 min read . Updated: 01 Mar 2020, 02:37 PM IST
A Q&A for anyone worried about traveling right now: How to stay safe, what to avoid and do masks really help?
A Q&A for anyone worried about traveling right now: How to stay safe, what to avoid and do masks really help?
Should I cancel my trip because of coronavirus?
It depends—primarily on where you’re planning to travel, but on other factors, too. As of Feb. 28, the virus had spread to 56 countries and every continent except for Antarctica, with the total sure to rise. But government agencies are only warning against travel to a handful of destinations. The U.S. Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are advising people not to visit China, the center of the outbreak, and the CDC has issued the same type of Level 3 alert (“avoid all nonessential travel") for South Korea, Italy and Iran, where more than 2,300 cases have been diagnosed. Other countries are offering similar guidance. Such warnings “are things that should be taken seriously," said Dr. Richard Dawood, a travel medicine specialist and medical director for the Fleet Street Clinic in London.
What if I’m headed to Japan?
The CDC has issued a Level 2 alert—meaning travelers should “reconsider" their plans—for Japan. What does “reconsider" mean? If you are older or have a condition such as asthma or diabetes, canceling trips to those destinations is a good idea, said Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, Calif.
What about the other countries where the virus has been reported?
Most of the other countries have only detected a handful of coronavirus cases, and many of the patients are people who were repatriated from China, Dr. Dawood said. “The risk to people traveling is actually very small outside the counties where there have been big numbers of cases."
San Francisco declared a state of emergency over coronavirus. Does that mean I shouldn’t travel to San Francisco?
No, Dr. Kappagoda said. The declaration frees the city and county government to mobilize more resources to fight the spread of coronavirus, but it doesn’t mean travelers are at higher risk: “You should feel free to come to San Francisco."
I want to err on the side of caution. Should I avoid flying altogether? If I have to fly, should I wear a mask?
As long as you’re following the CDC’s warning against all nonessential travel to China and South Korea, there’s no reason to stay off airplanes. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that travelers exercise the same precautions they’d follow to avoid catching any bug: Keep hands clean and use antiseptic wipes on any surfaces, such as tray tables and armrests, where germs could linger. Contrary to popular belief, cabin air is less of a concern; virtually all international jetliners are equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, similar to those used in hospital operating rooms; cabin air is refreshed every two to three minutes. Most medical experts say that face masks won’t protect you from other people’s illnesses; you’ll just prevent your own germs from spreading. Keep in mind that the Covid-19 virus spreads by droplets, not airborne transmission. (For more on masks, see “Is there anything extra I should pack?" below.)
I’ve heard that airports are taking fliers’ temperatures when they land. What happens if you are found to have a temperature?
Singapore Changi, as well as some airports in Europe, are using thermal sensors to scan arriving passengers for high temperatures. The CDC is equipped to screen passengers at 11 major international gateways in the U.S., including airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco; screening is mainly focused on travelers who were recently in China but may extend to the other Level 3 or Level 2 countries soon.
If a passenger has a fever—considered by medical professionals to be a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher—what comes next will be up to local health authorities. “If someone is showing signs of a generic illness or Covid-19, they’ll likely be tested if they’re arriving from a country that has identified cases," said Courtney Kansler, senior health intelligence analyst for risk management company WorldAware. Those who might have been exposed to a suspected case but aren’t exhibiting signs of illness are sent to quarantine. Quarantines have taken many different forms. People returning to the U.S. have been required to stay home for two weeks after visiting a high-risk country or have been evacuated to military bases, while travelers overseas have been confined to hotels where cases were reported among their fellow guests.
What about crowded places or events? Should I cancel my spring-break vacation to Walt Disney World?
No. There are still relatively few cases in the U.S., pointed out Dr. Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System, and the new coronavirus isn’t a reason to avoid events or gathering places. “We may get to the point where that is a public health measure that is recommended," she said. “But we’re not at that point now."
Still, you should think twice in countries where the virus has spread more widely. “It makes sense to avoid crowded places where there’s ongoing person-to-person transmission," Dr. Kappagoda said.
I was planning on going to Tokyo for the summer Olympics. Should I cancel now?
There are too many unknowns, according to Dr. Maragakis. The Tokyo Olympics are months away, and this is a rapidly evolving situation. In the end, it might not even be up to you. “Tokyo itself may have to make some tough decisions in the coming weeks and months," she said. For now, the Olympicsare continuing as planned.
Is traveling by a cruise ship riskier than traveling by plane or train?
After the recent quarantines of passengers aboard several ocean liners, you might be reconsidering taking a cruise. But the WHO experts say there’s no reason to suggest a cruise ship is more at risk than any other highly trafficked place. WHO says to follow the same guidance you would anywhere.
Are airlines, hotels or other travel companies changing their cancellation or booking policies in light of the coronavirus?
Several airlines this week said they would waive change fees for passengers traveling over the next few months, under certain circumstances. Most limited it to regions directly affected by the outbreak. American, Delta and United, for example, have all issued temporary travel waivers for flights to Italy, on top of previous waivers issued for flights to South Korea and China.
Both Alaska and JetBlue airlines—which don’t operate a lot of long-distance international flights—said they would suspend change fees and cancellation fees for new reservations made before March 12 for flights scheduled through June 1.
Is there any point in buying travel insurance if coronavirus isn’t covered by it?
If you’re insuring your trip because of Covid-19, you are probably out of luck; most trip-protection policies won’t refund you if you back out because you’re afraid to go. You might get a partial refund if your policy includes trip interruption coverage and you fall ill while traveling. Another option is to buy a much more expensive “cancel for any reason" policy. These CFAR plans, as they’re known, frequently cost 40% more than basic insurance, and the coverage often pays out only 50% to 75% of your total expenses, compared with the full cost paid by regular policies. Consumers should make sure to check the fine print for any exceptions. Websites like SquareMouth and Travelinsurance.com let you comparison shop among insurers and filter search results by specific parameters.
Is there anything extra I should pack?
While most experts agree that the flimsy paper masks don’t protect you, some say the industrial-strength N95 ones can help. Dr. David Eisenman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters, said he wouldn’t pack a face mask. Or if he were to pack one, it would be to give to a sick person he comes across (on the plane, for example). Masks keep the droplets created when people cough or sneeze from spreading, but to protect healthy people from germs, they have to be used correctly—something some young doctors don’t even do, he said. Using them incorrectly can create a false sense of security and even heighten the risk of contagion: It’s hard to resist scratching and making adjustments, and touching your face is a great way to infect yourself with a virus.
You should carry hand sanitizer with 60% to 95% alcohol, said Dr. Kappagoda, and use it frequently—especially after using the bathroom and before eating. Antiseptic wipes aren’t a bad idea, either. “We are more likely to get a viral infection from touching surfaces or other people than people coughing on us," she said.
Carry a few packs of disposable tissues in case you have sniffles, and make sure to dispose of them after one use. “It’s a way of keeping everyone else healthy," Dr. Eisenman said.
Are there other precautions I should take?
If you haven’t already, get your flu shot—at least two weeks before you depart. “It prevents you from getting an illness that you think is coronavirus, because they can act very similarly," Dr. Eisenman said. Flu-like symptoms can also put you at risk for quarantine.
Be vigilant about practicing basic good hygiene, he said. Wash your hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds, and avoid touching your face. “If somebody around you is sick, keep a 6-foot distance away from them," Dr. Eisenman said. “And if you are coughing or sneezing, try to avoid people."
Finally, don’t let coronavirus fears keep you from taking precautions against other illnesses, such as malaria and typhoid. “In most areas, the risk of travel-related diseases is higher than coronavirus," Dr. Kappagoda said.
I’m in good health and not overly concerned about contracting coronavirus. Is now a good time to travel to Asia and Europe in terms of fewer crowds and lower prices?
Expert opinions vary. But keep in mind that coronavirus isn’t the only hazard: You could face sudden travel restrictions, be quarantined or unwittingly spread the illness to others. “I think that’s highly likely that you can transmit it and not get sick yourself," Dr. Kappagoda said.
With things changing so quickly, a trip that seems like a good idea today might not seem wise in a few weeks. If you decide to travel anyway, make sure you have refundable bookings and a flexible schedule.
Are there any “safe" vacations I can plan?
Look to the outdoors, Dr. Dawood advised. “If I wanted to be totally risk averse I would take an outdoorsy-type trip—enjoy the national parks, hiking, camping or safari. There are lots of ways of avoiding crowds and the environments in which transmission is going to occur."
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