I’ve seen a lot of coronavirus content over the past few weeks but I haven’t seen many articles that break everything down in a way that is fact-based, not over-sensationalized, and geared for travelers. So I did some research and put together this article that I believe presents the facts objectively and should help give some people some reassurance on what to expect when it comes to the coronavirus and travel.
The first step to take is to get a grasp on the facts just so you know what you’re dealing with.
Here are some facts taken from the Center for Disease Control.
The actual virus is “SARS-CoV-2” and the disease it causes is “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated “COVID-19”).
COVID-19 likely originated from bats which is the same animal that the similar virus MERS-CoV came from (first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012).
Based on what we know so far, COVID-19 likely came out of a large seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China (a port city of 11 million people) at the end of 2019 and within a couple of weeks made its way to nearby countries like Japan.
Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death.
The following symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure:
- Shortness of breath
The CDC thinks it is likely that widespread transmission will occur in the US and it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic. Yes, we are probably on our way to a pandemic.
The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history but in 2009 we saw the H1N1 influenza pandemic (swine flu), so it’s not like it’s been 100 years since the last pandemic.
In the event of a pandemic, here’s what the CDC says may happen:
Mass gatherings may be sparsely attended or postponed. Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and sectors of the transportation industry may also be affected. Healthcare providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed.
So, not going to lie — that sounds kind of scary but I think it’s worth remembering that we’re not dealing with something with unprecedented spread and fatality rates.
Scientists estimate how efficiently a disease is transmitted between people by calculating a number known as “R0,” pronounced “R-nought.” (Probably sounds familiar if you’ve seen Contagion.)
The COVID-19 has been estimated to be between 1.4 (World Health Organization) and 3.5, so this means one sick person would be likely to infect 1.4 to 3.5 people.
Compare that range to the R0 for polio and smallpox which are in the 5 to 7 range and measles — one of the most contagious diseases ever to exist — which has an estimated R0 of 12 to 18.
So yes COVID-19 is pretty contagious but a good distance away from being a super contagious disease like measles, especially if the 1.4 number is accurate.
It’s worth noting that the 1918 influenza pandemic had an R0 value of 1.47 to 2.27.
And as for severity, it may not be quite as bad as you might think.
Data so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild and a report out of China suggests serious illness occurs only in 16% of cases.
(Note that “mild” could include pretty severe flu like symptoms.)
The CDC also reports that globally about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died and others report a 1% rate (as a comparison the flu usually kills far less than 1% of those infected). This number is evolving though because it is still very early to know the fatality rate for the coronavirus.
H1N1 had a fatality rate of .02% while MERS was 34% and SARS 9.6%. So a 1% to 3% chance of death is noticeably higher than swine flu but not nearly as scary as other similar viruses. It’s very similar to the 1918 pandemic rate of 2.5%.
It’s good to remember that the vast majority of people pull through without major issues. Those who struggle are usually older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.
If you look at fatality rates by age you’ll see the fatality rate was “1.3% in 50-somethings, 0.4% in 40-somethings, and 0.2% in people 10 to 39.” This is a notable difference from the pandemic of 1918.
Also, children seem to be less affected — a recent analysis looked at more than 72,000 confirmed cases from China and of the 1,023 deaths recorded in China at the time, no child was among them.
I’m not saying that the R0 values and mortality rates for the coronavirus are not startling.
A lot of people have and are likely going to lose their life to this disease. But for the average 10 to 40 year-old without underlying health issues, the risk of death caused by the coronavirus is maybe 1 in 500 (or even lower).
So that’s everything summarized in a nutshell but what do these things mean for travelers right now?
The first thing to consider is where are you going and how are you traveling?
You probably want to know if there has been reported cases of the virus in the location you were traveling to. Here, is an official list of all the countries where coronavirus has been found.
You should also take your research a little bit further and see what the warning levels are for the country you want to travel to. You can find those risk levels here but for convenience sake here they are:
Risk Assessment Level for COVID-19:
- Widespread sustained (ongoing) transmission and restrictions on entry to the United States
- Widespread sustained (ongoing) transmission
- Sustained (ongoing) community transmission
- Risk of limited community transmission
(Community transmission means that you get a virus from someone that you cannot trace it back to.)
Keep in mind that if you travel to some of the higher risk countries you will be forced to quarantine for 14 days when you return. You may not be able to complete your travel itinerary until the 14-day period has elapsed.
Also, some countries might require quarantine for all people entering the country. For example, Israel is requiring a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country.
How can you avoid infection?
If you decided to leave your house then you need to think about avoiding infection at all times.
Dr. John Torres, a medical correspondent for NBC News who practices emergency medicine and Dr. Joseph Fair, a virologist, epidemiologist and global outbreak responder, say you just need to do these three things to minimize your risk:
- Wash your hands.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Avoid large gatherings if there is an outbreak in your area.
I would emphasize using soap over hand sanitizer as it’s proven to be more effective:
In general, hand washing is more effective for disease prevention than hand sanitizer because soap removes some microbes that alcohol-based products don’t, such as norovirus, Clostridium difficile, which can cause life-threatening diarrhea, and Cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes a diarrheal disease called cryptosporidiosis…. [s]oap also removes traces of pesticides and heavy metals that hand sanitizers can leave behind.
The hand sanitizer could be an issue for some people since there have been some shortages so you may want to try to order some online if you can. You can also make your own sanitizer with rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel.
And it’s not just about the soap you also need to make sure that you are properly washing your hands.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevent suggest tips on washing your hands the right way:
- Wet your hands with clean running water and apply soap to a lather
- Scrub all surfaces: palms, backs, fingers, between fingers, under nails
- Scrub for 20 seconds
- Rinse under clean, running water, dry hands with clean towel or air dry
Timing is also important.
Your hands need to be sanitized “throughout the day, especially after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose; before eating; and after using the restroom.”
Not touching your face is the next tip but it could prove to be impossible for many. APIC estimates that the average person touches their face 23 times per hour.
For many people, the task of avoiding touching your face completely is pretty much impossible and you would probably be doing yourself more harm by worrying about it.
So just try to touch your face less and maybe find something to keep your hands busy.
The final thing you need to do is avoid large gatherings in outbreak areas. Personally, I’m just avoiding large gatherings anywhere (something I already basically did)
But this is where it gets tricky when it comes to travel.
In my experience when traveling, it’s not that difficult to avoid large gatherings. It just means turning down big events like SXSW (which was canceled) and avoiding some tourist hot-spots (which pretty much were already borderline miserable experiences due to the crowds).
It also means avoiding certain types of travel like cruises which the CDC already advised against.
The one place that is difficult to avoid when traveling is the airport.
If you were traveling during a hectic time it is basically impossible to avoid standing within contamination range of others. This is 6 feet for the flu virus so it is probably somewhere in that range for coronavirus, though that’s just my guess.
My advice would be to just go HAM on the soap/hand sanitizer when going through an airport and avoid sitting on anything that you cannot first wipe down.
Also, if you hear or see someone coughing or sneezing take extra effort to distance yourself a good 6 feet from that person.
You can wear a mask if you would like but according to experts unless it is a N95 respirator, it might not even be worth it due to air that gets in through gaps on the side of the mask. (Surgeon masks are great for keeping germs from coming from your mouth but not so great at keeping them from getting in.)
Tip: Crowds are already thinning in airports due to decreased travel but if you were to book the earliest flight or one of the latest flights, your chances of being around large crowds will go down a lot of the time.
And if you’re headed to an airport then you probably also want to know what the risk is inside the cabin.
You’d be surprised to find out that the air inside of an airplane is actually high-quality, because “planes use high-efficiency air filters that are comparable to those used in hospital operating rooms.”
The air vents can be a bigger issue though because people touch those a lot so you don’t want to have the air blowing on your face (aim it blowing out in front of you toward your hands).
The other points of contact would be things like the lavatory door and tray table, armrests, and seat.
Airlines are supposedly making more efforts to clean their cabins but it could be in your best interest to take some of your own measures.
Apparently wiping down your tray tables and other points of contact yourself is not worth it and instead you should place a sheet under things like your laptop to avoid contact (or you could do both).
And it goes without saying, keep your hands out of the seat-back holders, since a 2014 study found some germs could survive a week on a cloth pocket.
Basically, preventing risk is all about minimizing contact, avoiding crowded spaces where airborne particles lurk, and constantly washing your hands.
The chances of you dying from coronavirus are probably around one percent or less if you catch it and the chances of it becoming a serious issue for you is under 20% if you were to contract it.
It’s possible that as we move into the warmer part of the year transmission of the disease could go down. Potential vaccines have already been found and treatments may be available in the coming months.
I honestly think coronavirus will be more of an obstacle that affects us for a few months rather than a catalyst for global meltdown like some are predicting.
But things are probably going to get worse before they get better and when it comes to traveling, I would advise against certain types of destinations/events and methods of travel like cruises.
I would also hold off from airline or train travel for the next couple of months or until things start to die down, unless the travel is truly necessary. And even if the travel is truly necessary, in the next couple of weeks you might need to rethink it.
If you have any trips planned in the next month or two pushing them out to mid to late summer would probably be ideal. I’ve got a feeling that things will start to return to normal by then but that is just my feeling.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.