The Facts About Traveler Safety Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak originating in Wuhan, China has had an immense impact on travel to begin 2020, with airlines suspending select routes largely due to a lack of demand, cruise lines canceling some itineraries over concerns of potentially spreading the illness and governments warning citizens about particular health threats in areas within Asia.

However, as with any event that instills apprehension and fear in travelers’ minds—whether it’s an outbreak, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack—it’s important to distinguish facts from hysteria exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle.

Consider that a recent Travel Weekly readers poll of nearly 300 travel advisors found nearly two-thirds (63.8 percent) had clients cancel trips because of coronavirus fears. Plus, almost half of those advisors (45.6 percent) said they had clients canceling trips outside of Asia, where the coronavirus has yet to become an issue.

Subsequently, a Travel Impact Survey Report conducted for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) earlier this month found that one-quarter of all U.S. travelers have changed their travel plans due to coronavirus fears.

But is any of this warranted?

While travelers should always act based on their own personal comfort level, the fact is that the World Health Organization (WHO) has not recommended any travel or trade restrictions based on the current information available.

In a media briefing held earlier this month, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus confirmed that an overwhelming majority (99 percent) of reported cases are still in China. What’s more, most cases have been mild with fatalities being reported at 2 percent.

“So far this season in the U.S. [there’s been] a mortality rate from flu-like illnesses and pneumonia of around 7 percent,” Charles C. Bailey, MD, infectious disease specialist with St. Joseph Hospital, told Healthline. “This should be compared to the 11 cases so far documented for 2019-coronavirus with no deaths. Clearly, if there’s no panic concerning the current flu season which is a fairly normal one, panic over the domestic 2019-coronavirus situation doesn’t seem justified at present.”

Not only death but becoming infected is highly unlikely.

“The risk of being infected is low in many countries,” Dr. Carmen Dolea, Head, International Health Regulations Secretariat at WHO, said during a Q&A earlier this month. “The epicenter is still the Hubei province in China. Travelers should not cancel their plans but they should take into account the various restrictions that airlines have put in place when planning for their next trip.”

Dolea added that travelers should consider the restrictions put in place by authorities in areas of China where the coronavirus is concentrated when planning travel. “For other countries, it’s safe to go by taking regular protective measures,” she added.

The U.S. State Department raised China to a Level 4 (do not travel) on its travel advisory scale last month due to the WHO deeming the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and the potential for travel restrictions to be implemented with little or no advance warning.

However, North Korea is currently the only other Asian destination at a Level 4 and for completely different reasons (“serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals”). Even Macau and Hong Kong are each at a Level 2 (exercise increased caution) as of February 11.

Ultimately, the everyday flu is far more likely to impact your health than the coronavirus while traveling the world, especially if your travel is limited to the U.S. and destinations outside of China.

“It’s too easy to believe everything that’s posted on Facebook or Twitter and get swayed into hysteria. Educating yourself on what’s happening is the strongest weapon against panic,” infectious disease specialist Anita Sircar, MD, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

Regardless of your level of concern, travelers are encouraged to enroll in the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive the latest updates regarding safety conditions in your destination as well as to help the U.S. Embassy contact you in the event of an emergency.

Travelers should also reach out to a travel advisor if they don’t have one already as these professionals can provide advice, beneficial resources and additional information to educate clients and quell any undue fears they may have.

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