As coronavirus spreads, and more and more countries report cases (including over 1,000 now confirmed in the U.S. and over 120,000 globally), it's normal to be a bit freaked out — especially if you have a spring break vacation booked. And certainly, the growing number of travel advisories (including 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, for "a majority of the public" 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 considered to be low in the U.S., according to the Centers Of Disease Control and Prevention.
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). That said, you don’t necessarily have to rethink your spring break plans — but you do 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 CDC is making travel recommendations based on numbered travel advisories. So, travelers heading south to sunny destinations like Florida, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic for spring break — where the total number of confirmed cases is currently less than 30 — might not need to be as concerned as say those going to spots where the virus is more prominent.
The CDC has issued level-3 travel advisories for China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea, suggesting that people should avoid all non-essential travel there. (A level four would advise avoiding all travel.) Travel health notices for Japan are currently classified level 2, meaning travelers should take precautions and higher-risk groups should consider postponing their trip. (In light of this, officials are voicing concerns that coronavirus could affect the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.) The CDC also recommends travelers, especially those with underlying conditions, avoid cruise ship travel.
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 travelers.
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 Italy, Iran, and South Korea.
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. It reopened as of March 4, but is limiting the volume of tourists.
Check before you go, but also be prepared to change your itinerary. Some governments are dissuading people from having or attending large gatherings. In Italy, the national soccer organization has ordered all sports games closed to fans until early April.
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 be 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?
You should also register your travel plans the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service that allows the U.S. embassy in your location 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 The Country 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 travelers 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. Travelers going to a location with a level 3 advisory will be told to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days, depending on the location of their trip. If you develop symptoms, the CDC recommends contacting your doctor 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. A number of airlines have has suspended all flights to heavily impacted areas. In addition, both multiple airlines, including Delta and United announced they are waiving change fees for tickets associated with certain travel dates in March.