There are people wearing masks at U.S. airports, Americans trapped in quarantine on cruise ships, and terrifying pictures are coming out of China where they can’t seem to get a handle on the deadly coronavirus, aka COVID-19. It’s enough to make you think twice before booking your next getaway or perhaps make you consider canceling your travel plans. But take a deep breath (you don’t have to wear a mask while doing it), relax, and go ahead and take your trip — even overseas.
We talked to an infectious disease specialist and airport and airline professionals about how best to protect ourselves while traveling. And take note: the infectious disease specialist says her husband is on a plane three times a week – and she’s okay with that. Here’s how to travel safely (and sanely) in the midst of a global health emergency.
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First things first – most people don’t realize coronaviruses have actually been around for a while. Dr. Katie Passaretti, Medical Director of Infection Prevention at Atrium Health in Charlotte, NC, explains, “The coronaviruses are a family of viruses that have been around forever. The 2019 novel coronavirus is a new version of the virus. We’ve never been exposed to it, so everyone is susceptible. There is no pre-existing immunity.”
The outbreak started in Wuhan, China, but cases quickly spread to other countries around the world — including the United States. As of Tuesday, February 11, there were 13 confirmed cases across the country and hundreds of Americans being monitored in cities stretching from the East Coast to the West. For example, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the county health department was tasked with monitoring four patients who returned home after coming from the most affected province in China. So far, none of them actually has the virus, but any American returning from Wuhan is being quarantined until they’re believed to be virus-free.
But there is still so much unknown about how to stop the spread of the virus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel warning. It suggested Americans avoid any non-essential travel to China, and the three major American airlines that fly there stopped all service to the country.
A spokesperson from American Airlines shares, “The safety of our customers and team members is our top priority. We are in close contact with the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health officials and will coordinate with them on any required health- and safety-related measures.”
Before the airlines pulled the plug on flights to China, the flight attendants pushed for the move, voicing concern about how easily it was being spread. Sara Nelson, the President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA told Business Insider, “What’s concerning about the coronavirus is that people who are infected and not yet displaying symptoms can spread the disease.”
“We don’t know for sure how this coronavirus is spread, but in general, they’re spread by respiratory droplets introduced through the mouth, nose and eyes when people cough and sneeze,” Dr. Passaretti says. “Most of the cases are from close contact, being within six feet of someone who is infected, not just sharing air with a patient.”
How to Stay Safe While Traveling
So what can you do to stay safe while traveling? Our infectious disease specialist says, for the most part, you should treat the coronavirus like you would the flu. “Keep in mind the basics of infection prevention — wash your hands regularly, and if you’re sick, don’t travel.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a page dedicated to the coronavirus, where they suggest washing your hands for at least 20 seconds and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
On the plane, Dr. Passaretti suggests turning the air vents toward you to help circulate the air. Sit in a window seat instead of the aisle where you’re exposed to more traffic, and consider wiping down the tray table and seat buckle with a disinfecting wipe. But, she says, if you’re healthy, wearing a mask isn’t going to do much. “I don’t think everyone needs to wear a mask everywhere they go but some select circumstances where it makes sense — if someone is hacking away near you, I’d wear a mask, but I can’t say it’s definitely going to help.”
The CDC also does not recommend wearing a mask. But the CDC and FAA did team up to issue guidelines for flight crews that include avoiding public transportation and big crowds. Dr. Passaretti agrees, saying keeping a minimum of six feet away from anyone who is potentially affected is the best way to prevent the transmission of the virus.
Still, she admits her own husband is on a plane three times a week for work, and he’s still doing his thing. “My husband travels doing public speaking, and he said, “‘You’ll tell me when I have to stop, right?'”
So far, so good.
“I’m getting multiple calls a day. It is definitely a topic of conversation, but there is no zombie apocalypse yet,” she says, laughing. “Right now, in the U.S. and many countries, the flu is a bigger risk, and getting vaccinated is always a good idea!”
Bottom line? Keep your travel plans, but be a smart traveler by taking these expert suggestions to heart.
To keep up with the latest coronavirus news and advisories, visit cdc.gov, which issues updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
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