In Dec. 2019, humans in Wuhan, China, became infected with a new strain of coronavirus named COVID-19 (also known as the coronavirus disease 2019, the Wuhan coronavirus, the novel coronavirus, and 2019-nCoV). Since the initial infection, the virus has spread around the world, sickening tens of thousands of people, grounding thousands of flights, and drastically altering travel plans as borders are closed, and entire cities are quarantined.
In broad terms, coronaviruses refer to a specific family of viruses that affect humans, mammals, and birds, with transmission occurring between species. While symptoms vary per species, humans usually develop respiratory illnesses from coronaviruses. Well-known coronaviruses include SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak), both of which have had significant outbreaks in the last 20 years. COVID-19 is a newly discovered coronavirus, with the first human infections being reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a global health emergency on Jan. 30, 2020.
Since the situation regarding Coronavirus is changing rapidly, travelers are advised to check with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) for the latest developments.
The Spread of Coronavirus
While COVID-19 is thought to have originated in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak was first reported, it has infected people across the world. China is still the epicenter of the virus, with more than nearly 60,000 confirmed cases. (Some experts suggest that China has been providing inaccurate data, and the number of cases might be higher.) Twenty-five other countries have between one and 218 confirmed cases as well: Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam.
As of publication, 1,357 people have died from COVID-19, primarily in China.
Symptoms of Coronavirus
The three main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Many symptoms are mild, and some infected patients might not show any signs of illness at all. In severe cases, which typically occur in people who have weakened immune systems, such as the sick or the elderly, respiratory infection can lead to pneumonia, organ failure, or death.
COVID-19 seems to spread from human to human through close contact. The incubation period is thought to range from two to 14 days. There is currently no cure, vaccine, or antiviral treatment. Infected patients with no underlying complications will likely recover on their own with rest and fluids.
If you are showing signs of respiratory illness, stay home, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, wash your hands frequently, and sanitize frequently-touched surfaces. Contact your health provider if you are showing symptoms and have recently traveled to China.
Protecting Yourself from Coronavirus
While you might see travelers wearing masks, they will not prevent you from contracting the coronavirus. Masks should only be worn by people who are coughing or sneezing, as the mask may help prevent the spread of any illness (this includes everything from the common cold to COVID-19). Healthy people only need to wear masks if they are in constant direct contact with an infected person (i.e., health providers).
The most critical step to preventing the spread of COVID-19 is frequently washing your hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer. You should also avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
Travel Advisories and Precautions
On Feb. 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of State issued a Level 4 travel advisory for China, advising U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to the country due to COVID-19. Since then, the three major U.S. airlines—American, Delta, and United—have canceled all flights between the U.S. and mainland China through March 27, April 30, and March 28, respectively. U.S. citizens who have traveled to Hubei province in China will be quarantined for up to 14 days upon their return to the United States, while citizens who have traveled elsewhere in China will be subject to health screening at their point of entry into the United States and may be monitored for up to two weeks. Foreign nationals who are traveling to the United States from China might be denied entry at the border.
If you have travels booked to China, or layovers in Chinese airports, it’s advisable to reconsider your trip—many airlines are offering waivers for change fees. It is still relatively safe to travel elsewhere in the world, however—even to countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19—as long as you take precautions to protect your health.