It’s time for spring break travel — and time to nail down those summer vacation plans. Some of you are traveling out of the country (or have kiddos traveling internationally) and some of you will hop on a plane during these warm months. With all the buzz about the coronavirus, what do you need to know when it comes to travel and the health of your family?
You’re in luck! Dr. Bryan Youree, a physician with Fort Worth’s own Texas Centers for Infectious Disease Associates, answered ALLLLLL the questions running through our mama minds.
In a nutshell, what is the coronavirus?
Coronaviridae is a family viruses known to infect human and animals. Members of this family were identified as the cause of the common cold in 1965. These are respiratory viruses that also can be shed in stool. For years, there were four coronaviruses known to infect humans while many more infected animals. That changed in 2002 when SARS emerged followed by MERS in 2012. For the first time, coronaviruses in animals were observed to make the jump to humans. These new viruses caused more serious infections than the traditional ones.
The coronavirus in the news, SARS-CoV-2, is a novel coronavirus first identified in January 2020 in the Hubei Province of China that likely originated in an animal to human transmission with subsequent human-to-human transmission. Early analysis of its genetic sequence suggest possible bat or pangolin origin. This is consistent with SARS-CoV and MERS, which are thought to have originated in bats.
Is this virus as big of a concern as the media portrays?
Anytime a new virus is observed in humans, it attracts a lot of attention. It can feel scary — think West Nile, SARS, and Zika. This occurs primarily because there are a lot of unknowns about the virus, and we may have to learn a lot in a short period of time. We actually have lived with scary viruses for a long time (polio, smallpox, rabies, measles, and influenza). Fortunately, smallpox was eradicated, and polio has been greatly limited through vaccines. Yet, we don’t get quite as alarmed when thinking about these other viruses. There certainly can be a lot of sensationalism with social media and a 24-hour new cycle providing a constant feedback loop. However, it is always healthy to remain informed from experts in the field.
Should we travel domestically during spring break?
At this point in time, there is no evidence of widespread novel coronavirus within the community in the United States. Therefore, there are no travel advisories within the U.S. Given that SARS-CoV-2 appears to be about as contagious as influenza and that influenza activity within the U.S. remains elevated, you have to ask yourself, is influenza preventing you from traveling within the United States right now?
Is one form of travel riskier than others?
Traveling with a large number of persons always carries a higher risk of transmission of respiratory and diarrheal illnesses than traveling within one’s own car. You hear about norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships, but have you ever heard of a norovirus outbreak on a freeway?
If you are flying, I would recommend precautions that pertain to all respiratory and diarrheal illnesses. According to the World Health Organization (WHO): “Research has shown that there is very little risk of any communicable disease being transmitted on board an aircraft. The quality of aircraft cabin air is carefully controlled. Ventilation rates provide a total change of air 20–30 times per hour. Most modern aircraft have recirculation systems, which recycle up to 50% of cabin air. The recirculated air is usually passed through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, of the type used in hospital operating theatres and intensive care units, which trap dust particles, bacteria, fungi and viruses.”
According to many experts, when you are seated within two rows of an infected person on an airplane you are at the highest risk of contracting that illness. The risk drops significantly the farther you are from the infected person. I would recommend keeping hand sanitizer stocked, and use disinfecting wipes to clean the arm rests and tray table at a minimum. I would avoid the back seat pocket. You really don’t want to know what’s going on in there. Wearing a mask in the airport really isn’t going to make much of a difference. On a plane, a mask might make a difference if the person seated next to you was visibly ill with coughing and sneezing. However, that would probably only work for a short flight, and you would be better served giving the ill person your mask as that would have the biggest impact on transmission.
Should we travel internationally during spring break?
If you are traveling internationally, I would recommend the State Department Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This free service keeps you in contact with the closest U.S. embassy or consulate, allowing you to stay informed and connected, which is extremely pertinent in times like these. You can also sign up for travel advisory notifications even before you depart for your trip. If your destination has a travel advisory, the decision as to whether to go could be made for you by your airline or travel company. Let’s hope you purchased travel insurance. If you find that an outbreak occurs at your location while overseas, the first thing is to contact the closest embassy or consulate. (Thank you, STEP program). Keep your passport on hand with an extra copy on you and one with a family member at home. Lastly, in the current climate, you have to consider healthcare options at your travel destination and what your contingency plan might be should your re-entry into the U.S. is restricted due to an outbreak at your travel location.
Right now Iran, Japan, China, parts of Italy, and South Korea have travel advisories of varying levels in place. Travel.State.Gov remains your best resource.
If you have a family member traveling or about to travel, hopefully you have his or her itinerary and copy of his or her passport. Contacting the state department or the closest embassy/consulate would be priority number one if he or she becomes ill as the local office will know the best local resources. Also, contact the family member’s health insurance and/or travel insurance company to determine what, if any, coverage is offered.
If the risk is too high, the decision to cancel will likely be made for you by the airlines, travel companies, or the state department. If you are chronically ill or immunosuppressed, traveling right now may not be wise of a multitude of reasons.
What about traveling to places with large crowds?
In airports, the dirtiest place is the airport check-in kiosk. Seats in the waiting area can also be rather dirty and could use a once over with disinfecting wipes. Sitting away from individuals that appear overtly ill or are actively coughing/sneezing would be wise as well. Any travel location that has higher density of humanity (Times Square, indoor arena, subway/mass transit) will carry a higher risk of contracting a respiratory illness than a more rural destination. Indoor carries higher risk than outdoor, but as the 2014 measles outbreak associated with Disneyland (125 cases) demonstrates, outdoor amusement parks are not immune.
The most important piece of advice to keep you and your family healthy: Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly.