UPDATE: On Friday, March 13, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC's The Current that today the government will make a recommendation that Canadians avoid international travel for the time being. (Trudeau is currently in self-isolation after his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, tested positive for COVID-19.)
Original story follows.
As coronavirus spreads, and more and more countries report cases (including 117 now confirmed in Canada and 127,000 globally), and it's now officially been declared a pandemic, it's normal to be a bit freaked out — especially if you have a March Break vacation booked. Just today, the Ontario government announced that all public schools in the province would be closed for two weeks following March Break. And certainly, the growing number of travel advisories (including northern Italy, which is now in lockdown), and images of stores sold out of hand sanitizer and quarantine shopping lists making the rounds on social media, aren’t helping the growing panic.
The truth is, the risk of catching the virus (officially known as COVID-19, which comes with symptoms of cold and flu, and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath) is still low in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), although experts say local transmission is inevitable.
The more people move around, whether that’s simply within a large city or through international travel, the greater the likelihood of coming into contact with the virus (or any germs, for that matter). And many companies across the U.S. and Canada are beginning to institute work-from-home policies. Most of the Canadians diagnosed with coronavirus had recently travelled to one of the countries experiencing an outbreak or were close family members of the person who did. That said, you don’t necessarily have to rethink your long-awaited March Break plans — you just have to travel a little smarter. Here’s what you should know about coronavirus before you leave home.
Is It Safe To Travel Right Now?
The party line from the PHAC is: “The risk to Canadian travellers abroad will vary depending on the destination, as well as the person’s age and health status." Canadians heading south to sunny destinations like Florida, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic for March Break — where the total number of confirmed cases is still relatively now — might not need to be as concerned as say those going to spots where the virus is more prominent.
The Government of Canada has issued level-3 travel advisories for China, Iran, and Northern Italy, which means Canadians should avoid all non-essential travel there. (A level four would advise Canadians to avoid all travel.) As of March 2, travel health notices for Japan and South Korea were classified level 2, meaning Canadians should “practise special precautions.” (In light of this, officials are voicing concerns that coronavirus could affect the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.) The government is also warning Canadians not to take any cruises for the time being because the close living conditions can spread the virus faster.
If there isn't a travel advisory for your destination, it’s your call whether or not you want to hop on that flight or take that road trip. If you’re the type who is already squeamish about airplane-seat germs, or you’re prone to doomsday thinking, maybe it's best to stay home. “It isn't about safe versus unsafe, it's adjusting the precautions you take and the knowledge you have to fit the level of risk of the situation," says Erin Anderson, director of operations at Travel Health Now, which offers medical consultations to travellers.
To help people stay informed, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has developed a real-time map to track confirmed cases of coronavirus as it spreads. Mainland China, where the virus originated in the province of Hubei, has by far the most confirmed cases (over 80,000), followed by South Korea, Iran, and Italy.
Are Tourist Attractions Open?
Many international theme parks and museums have temporarily closed in an effort to stop or slow the spread of coronavirus. Shanghai Disney Resort has closed indefinitely, and the Louvre in Paris shut down for three days after cases of coronavirus rose in France and other parts of Europe. As of March 4, it had reopened. On March 12, it was announced the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be closed temporarily.
I Need This Vacation. What Can I Do To Avoid Getting Sick?
The same things you can do at home, like washing your hands with soap and water often and for at least 20 seconds (humming the happy birthday song twice through is a good benchmark). Coronavirus is considered to be spread by droplet, meaning it can passed along by coughing, sneezing, and through contact, such as via hands and the face. "It's important to wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, and avoid touching your face,” says Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Toronto's faculty of medicine.
Should I Wear a Mask?
In the words of Barack Obama: “Save the masks for healthcare workers.” Masks can help prevent the spread of the virus when worn by someone who is already sick, but aren't considered all that effective or necessary for people who are healthy, says Dr. Stephanie Smith, associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta. So, no, wearing a mask on an airplane is not going to protect you.
What Should I Pack In My Carry-On, Then?
Essentials like hand sanitizer, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. And don't forget the disinfectant wipes. “There isn't a lot of evidence around [the efficacy] using them, but at the same time I don't think it's a bad idea to wipe down your area on a plane,” says Smith.
You should also register your travel plans with Global Affairs Canada, a free service that allows the Government of Canada to notify you if there's an emergency abroad or send important information during something like a natural disaster or pandemic.
Will I Be Able To Get Back into Canada After My Vacation Or Will I Be Quarantined?
This is a legit concern given what you’ve likely heard about the Diamond Princess cruise ship, in which roughly 3,700 people were quarantined off the coast of California for 14 days. While the risk of quarantine also depends largely on the destination, it’s a possibility travellers should be prepared for. If you can’t afford to be restricted, either for work or personal reasons, then it might be a better idea to avoid any elective travel for the next little while, suggests Banerji.
Wherever you go, it's important to pay attention to how you're feeling when you get home. The PHAC asks Canadians to monitor their health for fever, cough, and difficulty breathing for two weeks after a trip. If you develop symptoms, contact your local Public Health Authority for advice. It's important that you call ahead, rather than show up at a hospital or your doctor's office, as limiting your exposure to other people is crucial to preventing the spread of the virus.
If I Cancel My Trip, Will My Insurance Cover it?
That depends. Most travel insurance covers cancellation for regions with a level 3 or level 4 travel advisory; however, some insurance companies, including Manulife, have stopped covering coronavirus-related trip cancellations. Depending on the airline you've booked with, the decision on whether to cancel may be made for you. Air Canada has suspended all flights between Canada and mainland China until April 10. In addition, both Air Canada and WestJet Airlines just announced they are waiving change fees for tickets purchased between March 4 and March 31.