The recent outbreak of coronavirus in China has public health officials and travelers understandably on edge.
The virus originated in Wuhan, China, but has spread rapidly in just a matter of weeks. Thousands have been sickened with the virus in more than a dozen countries worldwide, including several cases in the U.S one of which is a confirmed human to human transmission of the virus. American Airlines, Delta and United have suspended all flights to China, while U.S. officials are considering temporarily halting all flights to the mainland.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared the spread of the Coronavirus an international health emergency. This allows the WHO to help coordinate international response and gives them more power to hold individual countries to their standard.
So, what should you do if you've got travel plans to China or Asia? Here are some tools and tips to help you weigh your options.
What is Coronavirus?
Coronavirus is the name for a broader family of viruses, including the SARS virus that killed more than 700 in the early 2000s. This latest coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, and it's a novel virus – meaning it's never been seen before.
It's believed to have originated from animals at a live market, but it clearly can be transmitted to – and between – humans. Since it began in December, it's been passed on to thousands of people and counting in China and throughout Asia.
As of Feb. 15, more than 67,000 people had been infected with the coronavirus and over 1,500 had been killed, according to Johns Hopkins. Thus far, the vast majority of confirmed cases involve people who have passed through Wuhan, a massive city west of Shanghai. And in all, 99% of cases have been confirmed in mainland China.
While health officials worldwide are on high alert, it's worth stressing that the flu has been far more deadly. More than 8,000 people have been killed this flu season in the U.S. alone, according to public health figures.
The Coronavirus causes flu-like symptoms including fever, runny nose, cough, and shortness of breath. Part of the problem for curbing coronavirus transmission is a long incubation period – public health officials believe it can take 10 to 14 days before an infected person displays symptoms.
Deaths contributed to coronavirus are largely due to severe symptoms like pneumonia, affecting the elderly or people with weakened immune systems.
Should I Reconsider Travel to China?
On Jan. 31, the U.S. Department of State increased the travel risk rating for China to Level 4. That means the U.S. is officially recommending that travelers do not travel to the entire country of China. The State Department is also advising travelers to expect travel restrictions to be put into place with little to no warning.
If you have any non-essential travel booked to, from, or through China, you should be able to alter or cancel your plans for free. Many major airlines – including U.S. carriers like Delta, American, and United – have issued travel waivers for flights to and from China all the way through February.
American Airlines has now suspended all flights into China until March 27. Delta has announced it will suspend flights to China through April. We expect all other U.S. carriers to follow suit shortly.
This situation is evolving rapidly, and the Chinese government could impose more restrictions at any moment – as could other governments.
What About the Rest of Asia?
This is where it gets a bit trickier and more subjective.
The World Health Organization has now declared a global health emergency. However, at the time of publishing, the United States has not altered any travel advisories for countries outside of China.
Yet other countries are clearly also on high alert. There have been confirmed cases of coronavirus throughout Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. Health officials are worried that travel for last weekend's Lunar New Year would exacerbate the spread of the virus.
Still, most cases have been related to travel to and from China, and aggressive efforts to contain it are underway throughout the region – and the world.
But the fact remains that little is known about how the virus is spreading. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed cases seems to grow by the hundreds each day.
So, should you cancel your trip to Asia? Not necessarily. At this point, you may not be able to get any portion of your trip refunded. Airlines have not issued travel waivers for areas outside of China.
It's a personal issue for me. I'm heading to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore soon and chose not to change my plans. Those traveling to Asia in the coming weeks or months will want to closely monitor the situation. Travelers with pre-existing health conditions or poor immune systems may want to reconsider or discuss with their doctor.
How Can I Stay Updated?
Staying up-to-date on the outbreak is almost unavoidable. It's a massive news story.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering has a live map of the outbreak. This map is updated daily and tracks confirmed cases and deaths from the virus. This information can be helpful as the situation progresses to help you make choices about your travels.
How Can I Protect Myself?
If you're traveling through an area where the coronavirus is a concern, there are a few extra precautions you can take.
You may want to consider registering with the U.S. government’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). By enrolling your trip, you’ll be pre-registered with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate which will streamline the communication process should something happen during your trip.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends hand sanitizer, frequent hand washing, avoiding contact with sick people, and avoiding touching your face as the best ways to protect yourself from the virus.
While I have not changed my upcoming trip to Southeast Asia, I'm planning to bring extra sanitation items such as pocket hand sanitizer, wipes, and some travel Lysol spray.
As always, discuss any concerns with your doctor and rely on them to help determine if your overall immune health is suited for travel to an affected area.
There's not a clear answer of whether you should travel to the rest of Asia during this public health scare. It's ultimately a personal decision, based on your own health, concerns, and fears. The best you can do is stay informed, and make a decision that you feel comfortable with.