It’s difficult to live in modern society in 2020 without hearing about the latest Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19. During the week of February 23, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. reported community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in California, Oregon and Washington. Community spread in Washington resulted in the first death in the United States, as well as the first reported case in a health care worker, and the first potential outbreak in a long-term care facility.
With all this sobering news, are you wondering how the virus outbreak could impact any upcoming travel that you have on the calendar? Here are some tips and insights on what can happen and how you can protect yourself when you’re out and about.
As we all know, the best protection against health risks is awareness, education, and action. I was thinking about these questions myself, so I thought I’d take a little time to do some research and pull together the latest info about the recent Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak and how it might impact your travel adventures in the coming weeks and months.
Disclaimer: The Coronavirus COVID-19 is a new illness and the medical community is learning more about it every day. The information presented here is accurate as of the date of this posting. You’ll find links below to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. State Department, which will have the most current info.
What is Coronavirus COVID-19?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. In rare cases, animal coronaviruses such as with MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and now the new virus that began in China, currently described as COVID-19 can infect people and later spread between humans.
As of right now, it’s thought that the Novel Coronavirus is not an airborne virus, so it’s not transmitted through just breathing the air. The virus is transmitted through micro-droplets that are released when a sick person coughs or sneezes and someone within about 3 to 6 feet away breathes in the micro-droplets or touches the droplets, then touches their nose, mouth or eyes.
Current data indicates that the virus can survive about 30 minutes (or more) on hard surfaces, but if hand washing and surface disinfection are used, the risk of transferring the virus is significantly reduced. This is the same as with most viruses and illnesses like colds and flu that are transmitted through droplets.
Most people recover from the disease without needing special treatment. Fortunately, at the present time, less than 2% of those who have been infected are children.
What are the Symptoms of Coronavirus COVID-19?
Symptoms can appear 2 to 14 days after exposure to someone who has the Coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) based in Switzerland and a branch of the United Nations, says a common incubation period is 5 days, but a shorter or wider range is possible.
As with many viruses, symptoms can range from mild to severe and people with other health conditions may be more susceptible to more serious developments.
Primary Symptoms of COVID-19
Fever — If you travel for more than a day or so, consider taking a thermometer with you in 2020. I don’t think any of us want to be guessing about whether we have a fever or not, especially when we’re on the road.
Cough — Some Coronavirus lists of symptoms say “dry cough”. A dry cough is a cough where no phlegm or mucus is produced (known as non-productive).
Shortness of Breath or Difficulty Breathing
Muscle aches or fatigue
Less common symptoms of the virus are sore throat, diarrhea, nausea, or runny nose, but if they come with any of the symptoms above, COVID-19 should be considered.
Currently, over 15% of people who are infected with COVID-19 could develop more severe/advanced symptoms like pneumonia or organ failure. The latest data shows that up to 2% of cases result in death. A rate more than twice as high as seasonal flu.
While the virus is not something to be feared for most people, it’s also not to be taken lightly.
How Can I Protect Myself and Others Against the Coronavirus COVID-19?
I’m not a germaphobe and normally don’t worry too much about a few germs here or there since they can help build my immune system. However, there is currently no vaccine to prevent the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and there’s much that’s not known about it yet, so I think it’s best to proceed cautiously.
Naturally, the best way to prevent it and many respiratory illnesses is to avoid being exposed to the virus at all, but I don’t think travelers like you and I want to be quarantined from the world. Each of us has to decide how much risk we’re willing to accept when we travel. If the stress of the Coronavirus fears will ruin your trip, by all means, cancel or reschedule.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. recommends these 9 important preventive actions to help reduce the spread of Coronavirus and other respiratory diseases in general, including:
1. Stay Home When You’re Sick
If you get sick with the Coronavirus or any other easily spread disease, don’t be selfish and think you have to go to work, the store or on a trip when you’re contagious. It just makes things worse for everyone you come in contact with. Be considerate, especially of those who are more vulnerable, like the elderly, young or those with other health issues that could be complicated by the virus. This is just common courtesy.
2. Avoid Close Contact with People That You Know are Sick
Health organizations recommend a distance of 3 to 6 feet between a healthy and sick person. If you notice that someone is sick, try to keep your distance. The exception, of course, is if you need to be a caregiver for them. Then be sure to take these extra steps below to try to avoid getting sick too.
3. Cover Your Nose and Mouth Completely When You Cough or Sneeze
Preferably with a tissue. Then throw the tissue in the trash so others don’t have to touch it. If a tissue isn’t available, sneeze or cough into your bent elbow, NOT into your hands. Sneezing or coughing on your hands then touching people or surfaces just spreads the germs more.
4. Avoid Touching Your Eyes, Nose, and Mouth
This keeps you from transferring unknown germs from your hands to your airways or mucous membranes where it can enter your body.
5. Wash Your Hands Often with Soap and Water for at Least 20 Seconds
Here are step-by-step instructions from the CDC on proper handwashing.
Wash hands especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, touching your face, coughing, or sneezing. It’s also helpful to wash your hands after touching hard surfaces in public spaces or hotels, such as handrails, door handles, light switches, restroom fixtures, or seats.
Most of us think that warm or hot water helps to kill germs, but actually, the temperature really isn’t a major factor in killing off the bacteria. Warmer water helps the soap to disperse better though. Also, studies have shown that there is no added health benefit for consumers using soaps containing antibacterial ingredients compared with using plain soap, so use whatever soap you have on hand, just make sure to use soap.
We’ve all been in a public restroom with an empty soap dispenser. A great option for making sure you have sudsy soap on hand wherever you go is to carry a tube of liquid soap or better yet, soap leaves. They’re thin slices of soap that are activated when you add a few drops of water. Kids love them too because they’re kinda magical. They also aren’t restricted by quantity when going through TSA, since they’re not liquid.
6. Dry Your Hands Thoroughly
It’s very important to dry your hands thoroughly after washing them. Wet hands make a perfect environment for germs to thrive. Drying your hands with a paper towel or hand dryer is much better than using a reusable towel, which could contain dirt and bacteria.
For those times when there are no paper towels available, don’t take a chance with drying your hands on your germy clothes. I found these cool disposable “Compressed Towels” (affiliate link) to carry everywhere. They’re about the size of a thick quarter and individually wrapped to stay clean and dry. Then when you need one, simply soak it in water for 3 seconds and it expands to use as a towel or wipe.
Now, it won’t be 100% dry at first, but it can be wrung out and start to dry quickly since it’s made of thin cotton fiber. These can help absorb any extra moisture on your hands and between your fingers. Then it can be tossed away with any germs.
Another helpful tip is to use a paper towel to grab the door handle when leaving a public restroom. Afterward, it can then be tossed into the trash bin. While I generally recommend re-using products as much as possible to save waste, it’s just not practical when you’re trying to avoid serious germs and viruses. Better safe than sorry, right?
Printable Instructions for Proper Hand Washing — Print this out and teach your kids, then hang it in your family bathrooms or common areas for everyone to follow.
7. Use Hand Sanitizer if You Don’t Have Soap
If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Note: The CDC recommends that you always wash hands with soap and water if at all possible when your hands are visibly dirty.
Some travel-sized hand sanitizers include a small strap that makes it easy to attach them to your purse, stroller, diaper bag, backpack, travel tote, camera bag or anywhere you need them.
8. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
Use disinfectant household cleaning spray or wipes to clean hard surfaces at home or on the go.
Do you have children or pets and are worried about toxic disinfectants around the house or in your hotel? There are spray disinfectants available that are approved to be safe even for hospital NICUs. They can kill germs and viruses on your stroller, changing pad or table, and diaper bins.
They can also sanitize eating and prep surfaces on a restaurant or home high chairs, counters, and tables and are very safe for direct food contact. Zero chemical residue makes them safe to spray directly on toys, teethers, pacifiers, and sippy cups without rinsing.
When you’re on the road or on a flight, disinfecting wipes are great to stash in your purse or carry-on. They’re perfect for a single-use like wiping down your airline armrest and seatback tray, and you don’t have to worry about the quantity being limited by TSA since they’re not liquid.
9. Wear a Mask if You’re Sick
The CDC and World Health Organization currently recommend that only people who are sick wear a mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including Coronavirus COVID-19. There’s minimal benefit to a person that’s healthy.
However, if you start experiencing any of the symptoms of Coronavirus or other easily transmitted illnesses while you’re traveling, it would be wise to wear a disposable face mask. A mask should be worn as soon as you think you might be contagious and whenever you’re around other people. This helps prevent you from spreading any illness to others.
Also, if you’re taking care of someone who has the Coronavirus be sure to wear a mask and follow all appropriate instructions to reduce your chances of getting the illness.
Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
If you wear a mask, it’s important to know how to use and dispose of it properly in order to avoid exposing yourself to the germs on the mask.
How Can I Stay Informed About Health Risks?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently posting daily “Situation Reports” with the latest Coronavirus and other illness outbreak information. Reports include outbreak locations and severity, the number of cases and any new information available about the virus. Checking these reports before and during your travels is a great way to stay informed about any new health risks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. also posts “Travel Health Notices” regularly with different risk levels for countries of concern. You can search by country name or disease name.
The U.S. State Department also posts “Travel Advisories” for countries based on security or other risks that should be considered by travelers. You can look at the State Department Travel Advisory World Map, which might be easier if you’ll be traveling in or through more than one country.
What Should I Do Before I Leave?
It’s always important to learn what medical services your health insurance will cover overseas, but especially so during a disease outbreak. If your health insurance policy provides coverage outside of your country, remember to carry your insurance policy identity card as proof of insurance. Bring a claim form or find a link where you can download one if needed.
Although some health insurance companies pay “customary and reasonable” hospital costs abroad, very few pay for your medical evacuation back to your country, if you need or want to go home for care. Medical evacuation can cost more than $50,000, depending on your location and medical condition. For more information. U.S. citizens can visit the State Department’s website for Insurance Providers for Overseas Coverage.
It is also important to consider buying Travel Insurance. Rick Steves’s article has detailed information about what to consider for travel insurance coverage. You can find out even more by visiting a website like InsureMyTrip.com for options, advice and reviews on various travel insurance plans.
Should I Contact my Airline or Travel Provider?
It’s possible that air and ground travel may be impacted during your trip. For your own peace of mind, consider contacting your transportation providers before you leave home to find out their policies on ticket refunds or change fees if flights are canceled or changed due to the current health situation. This is important especially since you don’t want to be stranded once you’ve left your home country.
Should Americans Enroll in the STEP Program?
Anytime Americans travel or live internationally, it’s wise to enroll before you leave with the nearest US embassy or consulate at your destination through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It’s a FREE service that allows US citizens traveling or living abroad to receive the latest security updates for their location. It also enables the embassy or consulate to more easily contact you in case of an emergency. If your family or friends in the U.S. are having trouble contacting you with urgent news while you’re traveling, the information in STEP can also help them reach you.
If you or a U.S. citizen loved one becomes seriously ill or injured abroad, the State Department can:
Assist in locating appropriate medical services.
Inform your family or friends, with your permission.
Help transfer funds to the U.S. citizen overseas.
NOTE: The State Department does NOT pay medical bills. Payment of hospital and other expenses is the patient’s responsibility.
Links to Other National Travel & Health Websites
The World Health Organization also provides these links to various countries’ travel and health-related websites. A quick online search for “World Travel Advisories” should also give you various sources of information in your own country.
What Will Be Different When I’m Traveling?
International Air Transport Association (IATA) works closely with the World Health Organization to create processes and guidelines to help airline and airport staff in the event of an outbreak of specific contagious diseases or illnesses.
If you’re traveling via a public airline, you may experience these changes in procedure. They’re designed to help all travelers and should be followed willingly when requested. The airline staff has enough to do without having to deal with passengers who don’t follow directions.
What is the Risk of Contracting Coronavirus When Onboard an Airplane?
The overall risk of contracting a disease from an infected person on board an airplane is similar to that in other confined areas with high occupant density, such as a bus, a subway, church, school, movie theatre or anywhere where a person is in close contact with others for a time.
That said, the risk on airplanes is probably lower than in many confined spaces because modern airplanes have cabin air filtration systems equipped with HEPA filters. HEPA (high-efficiency particulate) air filters have similar benefits as the ones used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms. These filters are very effective at trapping microscopic particles as small as bacteria and viruses.
HEPA filters are effective at capturing between 85% and 99.995% of the airborne microbes in the filtered air.
The cabin air system is designed to operate most efficiently by delivering about half outside air and half filtered, recirculated air. The total air supply is essentially sterile and particle-free and cabin air circulates continuously.
What Happens When I Arrive at the Airport?
In airports and other public places follow the steps mentioned above to reduce the potential transmission of any virus or disease. This is true in any situation where you come in contact with groups of people in close proximity to each other.
What Can Airport Staff Do if a Traveler is Suspected to Have Coronavirus?
Be aware that in the event of an international outbreak, public transportation staff may have additional instructions to follow if they encounter someone who displays symptoms of the disease being monitored.
In the current situation, if an airport employee suspects that a traveler is displaying the symptoms of the Coronavirus illness, they may contact their supervisor. If the supervisor agrees with the concerns, they may contact medical support to assess the traveler.
In the event that medical support isn’t available, the supervisor has the authority to deny boarding for the passenger and ask the traveler to get a medical clearance before they can fly.
If the staff needs to physically help the traveler to another location, the sick traveler may be asked to wear a mask as a precaution.
NOTE: Since airport staff are dealing with hundreds or thousands of travelers each day, they may not notice symptoms during an outbreak. If you, as a traveler see someone that is clearly displaying the symptoms of the illness, contact airport staff and let them handle it from there. Be wise and don’t provoke fear where it’s unwarranted. It’s not your place to diagnose or discuss the situation with the suspected traveler or those around them. Airport staff is trained and empowered to handle these situations.
What Happens if the Cabin Crew Suspects a Passenger has Coronavirus COVID-19?
If you are already on a flight and you or another passenger is showing symptoms for the COVID-19 Coronavirus or another communicable disease, the cabin crew is instructed by IATA to take extra precautions to try to minimize exposure to other passengers. You may be asked to comply with these changes for your own benefit and the benefit of those around you. As always, remain calm, be cooperative and let the staff do what they’ve been trained to do. Don’t become part of the problem.
A. The passenger showing symptoms may be moved away from other passengers.
B. Cabin crew may ask appropriate health-related questions to the people who are traveling with the ill traveler to determine if they also have symptoms of the illness.
C. One restroom may be designated only for use by the passenger showing symptoms. This is to protect everyone else on the flight from a higher risk of getting infected with the virus.
D. The traveler with symptoms may be given tissues to cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. An air sickness bag may be provided for the disposal of used tissues.
E. The suspected passenger may be asked to wear a face mask.
F. If the ill traveler refuses or is unable to wear a mask, any passengers or crew within 1 meter (about 3 ½ feet) may be issued a mask (if they’re available).
G. The captain of the flight will be notified since he/she is required to notify air traffic control of the situation at their destination.
H. Travelers seated in the same row, 2 rows in front and 2 rows behind the sick traveler may be asked to complete a passenger locator form so they can be contacted in the future about exposure and protocol if needed.
Here’s the Full list of IATA recommendations for airline cabin crews.
What Could Happen Before I Leave the Airplane or Airport?
In situations like the Coronavirus COVID-19 or other outbreaks, the cabin crew may be required by your destination country to ask you to take additional steps before leaving the plane. Be sure to listen and follow these instructions carefully. Here are two examples of announcements that you MIGHT hear during your travels.
Travelers May be Asked to Self-Identify to Public Health Authority
(When arriving at a country where travelers from affected countries are asked to self-identify to the public health authority)
“Ladies and gentlemen, Actions have been put in place by public health authorities in response to the ongoing outbreak of …….. (disease) in ………… (which country(ies)). All travelers (including transit travelers) who have been present in ……… (which country (ies)), in the last three weeks are asked to report to the public health authority on arrival at the airport. This is requested as a safety measure even if you are feeling well. Thank you for your cooperation”.
Travelers May be Asked to Complete a Traveler Health Declaration Form
(When arriving at a country that requires passengers to fill out the Traveler Health Declaration Form)
“Ladies and gentlemen, Actions have been put in place by public health authorities in response to the ongoing outbreak of …….. (disease) in ……….. (which country(ies)). Public health authorities require that all travelers complete a health declaration form before arrival. Your information will be used in accordance with local privacy laws to help fight the spread of the disease. Every traveler must complete a form. A parent or guardian may complete the form for a child. This is required as a precautionary measure even if you are feeling well. The cabin crew will give out the form shortly. Please hand the completed form to the public health authority representative on arrival. Thank you for your cooperation.”
What if I Start to Experience Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptoms in Another Country?
It’s important to take immediate steps to avoid infecting anyone else, regardless of whether it’s COVID-19 or another illness. Review the prevention steps above and take appropriate measures like wearing a mask, washing hands often, avoiding crowded places, etc.
Remember that the U.S. (and most other) Governments do not take responsibility for payment of medical expenses for private individuals. Also, the U.S. Medicare Program does not provide coverage for hospital or medical costs outside of the United States. This makes it even more important to be sure you have sufficient travel and medical insurance coverage before leaving your home country.
Since the Coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak is a quickly changing situation, it’s probably best to notify the nearest embassy or consulate for your country and ask for their advice on your next steps. If you need to contact a U.S. embassy or consulate, call 1–888–407–4747 (from the US or Canada) OR 00–1–202–501–4444 (from other countries).
You can also find lists of doctors and hospitals in the country you’re visiting by going to the embassy website. Choose your destination country on the U.S. embassy or consulate website. Then, review the relevant details provided by that country under the heading of Medical Assistance or Health and Medical Information.
Remember that you may not be allowed to travel on a public airline if you have symptoms of the Coronavirus COVID-19. It’s also possible that you may be required to be quarantined in certain situations at your destination or when returning to your home country, whether or not you’re displaying symptoms. All these possible scenarios and risks should be considered when you make travel plans.
It’s irresponsible to the general public, more vulnerable travelers and transportation staff to try to hide your symptoms and travel anyway. Contacting your country’s embassy is a wise step for getting help with your situation.
The recent outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 presents risks, just as in other areas of life, but with education, information, awareness and precaution, most risks can be minimized. I hope this information helps you make informed decisions about your upcoming travel plans.
For more travel advice, destination tips and inspiration, please follow me here or visit my travel blog, Traveling with Purpose.
Originally published at https://travelingwithpurpose.com on February 28, 2020.