Are you planning a trip to Asia? I am, so news of the “novel” coronavirus outbreak in China is particularly relevant.
It’s hard to miss the stories about Americans being evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the viral outbreak. In fact, the first group of evacuees touched down in Anchorage on Tuesday, on their way to quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California.
Many airlines, including United and Delta, have suspended or reduced their flights to and from mainland China. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.
Is it safe to travel on planes? After all, you’re jammed in with lots of other people and some of them could be sick.
“This new or ‘novel’ coronavirus is a respiratory infection, like the flu,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s chief epidemiologist. His office is part of the Alaska Division of Public Health, which plays a key role in protecting Alaskans from infectious diseases. He and his staff have been monitoring the coronavirus outbreak closely and he has some specific advice for travelers.
“The virus is passed through respiratory drops from coughing or sneezing, through touching, kissing or shaking hands or by touching a hard surface that a sick person has recently touched," McLaughlin said. “So wash your hands with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. And stay away from people who are sick; 6 feet away is perfect.”
Kim Kluckman has been a nurse in Anchorage hospitals for 11 years and is a board member of the Alaska Nurses Association. “With the coronavirus in the news, it’s OK to be a little hyper-vigilant about your normal healthy travel routine,” she said.
That includes taking some hand sanitizer and some wipes to clean off your airplane seat, including the armrest and the tray table.
“Wash your hands with soap and water,” Kluckman said. “Wash them often,” she added, stressing the word “often.”
Should you wear a mask on the plane? “If you’re sick, wear a mask,” said McLaughlin, who has been Alaska’s chief epidemiologist since 2007.
Kluckman is a little more strident: “If you’re sick, don’t travel,” she said. “It’s better for you and your fellow travelers.”
McLaughlin said those "at greatest risk are those who are traveling in China — especially in Wuhan.” He recommends visiting your physician to discuss overseas travel at least a month in advance, since vaccines need two weeks to become effective.
“Check your destination for health concerns,” he said. “The CDC has a database for each country, which offers guidance on any outbreak or health concern."
So far, the coronavirus has been identified in just six people in the U.S. But McLaughlin has a bigger view when it comes to travelers’ health. “Influenza causes many more folks to get sick every year,” he said. “Get your flu shot. It’s not too late.”
What happens if you’re traveling and you start to exhibit the symptoms of the coronavirus? Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and fatigue.
“Put a mask on and seek medical care,” McLaughlin said. “But please, call ahead to the doctor or clinic so they know you’re coming."
While the coronavirus is getting attention worldwide, there are several steps smart travelers can take to avoid other illnesses while traveling.
“Check if you’re going to countries with vector-borne diseases like malaria, transmitted by insects,” McLaughlin said. “Wear long sleeve pants and long sleeve shirts and use insect repellent with DEET."
He also recommends avoiding animals. "If you’re bitten or scraped, wash the wound right away and see a doctor,” he said. “There’s a potential for rabies.”
The potential spreading of the coronavirus outside of China is concerning. But right now, China is the only country in Asia where the CDC has upgraded its guidance to a “Level 3,” warning against any non-essential travel.
Other healthy traveler tips are good wherever you’re going, especially outside the U.S.:
1. Make sure your health insurance covers you outside the U.S. If not, you can purchase a travel insurance policy that can cover routine doctor visits, hospital stays and medical evacuation. But you have to read the fine print. There are two comparison-shopping tools: insuremytrip.com and squaremouth.com.
2. “Always wear your seatbelt,” McLaughlin said. We laughed about riding on scooters in Southeast Asia (no seatbelts available!).
3. “Eat and drink safely,” he said. “Choose foods that have been cooked and are served hot. And stick to drinks that are bottled and sealed.”
4. “Protect yourself from the sun,” McLaughlin said. “Particularly during this time of year, Alaskans just are not used to the sun and hot temperatures. Use sunblock that’s rated SPF 15 or higher.”
5. “Don’t check your medication in your luggage,” Kluckman said. “Make a little travel kit with hand sanitizer, some wipes and all the medication you’ll need for your trip.”
6. “Wear socks for the security checkpoint,” Kluckman said. “You don’t want to walk through the TSA area in your bare feet.”
After this lengthy safety briefing, am I still going to Asia? Sure, but I’ll be sure to get my vaccinations, pack some wipes and wash my hands … often.