More than 82,000 people around the globe have been sickened by the virus since it was first identified in late 2019. Mainland China remains ground zero for the outbreak, but there are new countries of concern. Cases have soared in South Korea, Italy and Iran in recent weeks, raising new questions about how the disease is spreading.
So what should vacationers do? Experts say: Prepare, don’t panic.
“Preparation comes in knowledge,” Irfan Jetha, CEO of Travel Health Now, told Global News. “With any travel, it’s ensuring that you’re taking precautions, especially now. It goes back to some of the really simple stuff.”
What are the symptoms?
Runny nose, headache, cough and fever are all symptoms of this new coronavirus strain, but part of the difficulty in weeding out mild cases of COVID-19 is its similarities to the common cold.
So far, most of those who have died from the virus had underlying health conditions, like diabetes or heart disease, which weakened their immune systems.
Experts say anyone with the general symptoms is likely just experiencing the flu.
But if you’re on a flight and notice someone exhibiting these symptoms, there’s not a lot you can do, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital.
“Outside of the coronavirus fears, you’d do the same thing you’d do if you saw someone coughing near you — you get grossed out and turn away. That’s about all. You stay buckled up with the seatbelt sign on.”
What hygiene measures should I take?
Like any other virus, keeping up with good hygiene practices is key to avoiding the COVID-19 virus when travelling.
This virus is spread through droplets of bodily fluids like saliva and mucus. If an infected person coughs or sneezes, they can release these droplets. If a healthy person inhales them or they touch their face, they can become infected.
The best form of defence? Hand washing. “Impeccable” handwashing, to be exact, Bogoch said.
“You have to appreciate that this could be on high-contact surfaces, as well,” he told Global News. “The same is true for all other respiratory viruses — if you’re sick, stay home. If you’re coughing or sneezing, do it in your arm and not your hands or the air around you.”
It’s also the perfect time for people with pre-existing medical conditions to get their health up to date, he added.
“Go to your health-care provider and get it looked at. Get your prescriptions filled. Make sure those conditions are well-managed and cared for.”
Should I wear a breathing mask?
The traditional surgical mask has been flying off the shelves worldwide for weeks — but it isn’t as protective as it may seem.
While they prevent large droplets from coming into contact with parts of the face, most health experts believe them to be ineffective.
A different type of medical mask — called the N95 — is a better choice. Experts say they’re more effective because the masks sit more tightly on the face and are made of a thicker material.
Traditional medical masks do have some benefit, according to Ronald St. John, an expert in national and international infectious disease control, but mostly for health-care workers and when worn by those already infected.
“The mask is most effective when put on a person who is sick,” St. John previously told Global News.
“It traps the particles, so when they sneeze, the particles do not spread.”
Should I cancel my travel plans?
The risk of being infected is still relatively low in many countries. It all comes down to keeping a close eye on travel advisories and countries with significant infection numbers, Bogoch said.
“It’s extremely challenging to make recommendations because the travel advisories are shifting goalposts,” he said. “It’s a moving target — it’s hard to predict how your trip will be impacted in the coming days.”
Countries around the world have imposed strict travel restrictions in an effort to contain the spread. Canada has issued a travel advisory for China, specifically the epicentre, the province of Hubei. Italy and South Korea have upgraded travel notices for Canadians, as well.
“You can’t just think about Canada’s policies, you also need to think about the policies at your destination and at any points of contact along the way, like layovers,” Bogoch said.
The volatility of the situation should be enough to convince any March Break traveller that insurance is vital, he added.
“Have alternative plans. Make sure you are ensured and have the capability of cancelling your booking if you choose not to travel, or face a travel mishap, for a variety of reasons, including a change in travel advisories and restrictions,” he said.
Canadians headed on international trips are being encouraged to register their travel plans with Global Affairs Canada as the outbreak lingers.
Ultimately, the choice to travel is up to Canadians.
“My common-sense advice to Canadians: make sure you register and make sure you know where you’re going because this coronavirus is evolving by the hour,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
What are airlines and airports doing?
Airports in nations around the world have undertaken screening measures in the wake of the outbreak.
In some countries, officials are scanning people’s temperatures for signs of fever.
Travellers arriving in Canada are advised to notify border officers if they’re feeling sick, but experts aren’t convinced these measures do very much to spot cases.
As for airlines, Air Canada recently expanded its suspension of flights between Canada and mainland China to April. Dozens of other airlines have similar policies in place for travel to China.
The World Health Organization says travel restrictions are not the way to go. The agency has repeatedly called the measures unnecessary, saying they fan fear and stigma “with little public health benefit” since the outbreak is still predominately an issue for China.
What about cruise ships?
Cruise ships are somewhat of a petri dish for viruses to thrive, experts say, thanks to tight living spaces and passengers onboard from all over the world.
An outbreak on a Carnival Cruise Line ship in Japan earlier this month saw thousands of passengers quarantined for two weeks, with at least 691 of them testing positive for the illness.
Bogoch says the same prevention methods can be applied, but that travellers should be aware of the risk certain types of vacations carry during an outbreak like this.
“We know that cruise ships can contribute to the spread of respiratory and gastrointestinal viruses. That’s something people should be mindful of in a brewing pandemic,” he said.
“Ultimately, everyone has their own appreciation of what their risk threshold and tolerance is, and everyone will behave accordingly.”
— With files from Global News’ Maham Abedi, Leslie Young and The Canadian Press