As an outbreak of a new pneumonia-causing coronavirus is poised to spread across the globe, people in largely unaffected places like the U.S. might worry about visiting areas where the virus is spreading or traveling by air at all. The answer to whether you should cancel existing travel plans, however, is complicated.
Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a level 3 travel warning (its highest), recommending that anyone with nonessential travel plans to mainland China avoid going there; the State Department issued its own equivalent warning advising the same. Since then, many major airlines have canceled all flights from the U.S. to China (though there may still be some options available).
But while the outbreak of COVID-19, as the disease caused by the virus is called, has been centered around mainland China since last December, it’s now spilling out into other countries as well. South Korea, Italy, and Iran have all recently reported large clusters of cases, locally spread from person to person. And we’re now starting to see cases in places near these countries. All told, there have been at least 80,000 documented cases of COVID-19 worldwide, across 37 countries, with over 2,700 deaths.
On Monday, the CDC issued another round of travel warnings, with a level 3 alert for South Korea, which has reported nearly 1,000 cases, and a level 2 alert for people traveling to Italy, Iran, and Japan.
“Older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel,” to Italy, Iran, and Japan, the level 2 advisory states, while anyone recently returned from these countries in the past two weeks who’s developed fever, cough, or difficulty breathing should seek medical help and tell their doctor about their recent travel.
So unless the CDC issues a travel advisory for the area you are planning to visit, there is no reason to cancel any plans at this time. What you can do in general if you’re traveling (and even if you’re not) is practice good hygiene. Avoid touching your face with your hands, avoid close contact with people who are sick, and wash your hands correctly and frequently—with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at 60 percent to 95 percent alcohol.
Interestingly, the World Health Organization advises against implementing travel restrictions in general during an outbreak, including during this one. Many public health experts have already criticized the travel restrictions implemented by countries like the U.S. For one, the fear and economic damage these restrictions create can unintentionally worsen the situation, making countries more reluctant to report cases within their own borders. They can also make people prejudiced toward the residents of affected countries or of their neighbors who hail from there.
Another major problem is that by the time an outbreak is visibly spreading, travel restrictions may not help stop it—at most, they might buy a country some time. A paper earlier this February, for instance, found there was “limited research to support the use of travel bans to minimize the spread” of MERS, SARS, Ebola, and Zika, four other infectious diseases that have caused large outbreaks in recent years, with SARS and MERS being caused by coronaviruses, too.
At a certain point, the sad truth is that it becomes less about trying to stop an outbreak from entering a country and more about doing what we can to mitigate the damage it causes, goals that tend to require different strategies. Earlier today, for instance, CDC officials warned that the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. is almost certainly inevitable.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re doomed to a pandemic. On Monday, the World Health Organization declined to declare the outbreak a pandemic for now, noting that some countries seem to have been able to stop the local spread of the disease. That situation can absolutely change in the days and weeks to come, but it probably won’t rest on whether or not you decide to change your flight plans for spring break.