The outbreak of coronavirus (officially known as COVID-19) has been declared a public health crisis by the United States, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed it a global emergency.
The virus has infected tens of thousands globally, and hundreds of people have died, predominantly in China.
The United States has temporarily barred foreign nationals believed to be a risk of transmitting the virus from entering the country. Americans returning from Hubei province, the center of the outbreak, are required to undergo 14 days of quarantine. Those returning from elsewhere in China are being allowed to self-monitor their condition for a similar period.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 3 warning for China and is recommending against all nonessential travel to China due to the outbreak. The coronavirus has been traced to the city of Wuhan, China, where cases were first detected in December.
The coronavirus has now infected more people in China than the 5,327 people who were sickened in the country by severe acute respiratory syndome (SARS) in 2002 and 2003.
Authorities in China have cut off flights, trains, and other transport from Wuhan after travelers from the city started carrying coronavirus to other parts of China and abroad. Many other Chinese cities have imposed lockdowns as well. In total, the lockdowns affect some 50 million people who have been isolated in China.
Authorities are discouraging any large gatherings of people, having closed the Forbidden City in Beijing, among other popular tourist sites. Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland are closed for the time being as well. Wyndham Hotels & Resorts has closed approximately 1,000 hotels in China due to the outbreak.
Numerous cruise lines have canceled and altered itineraries due to coronavirus. And several airlines, including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines, and British Airways, have canceled their flights to and from China.
Countries including the United States, Thailand, Japan, Australia, Singapore, India, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as Hong Kong, have stepped up screening measures for travelers from China.
The CDC has been conducting public health entry screenings at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York (JFK), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), and Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD).
What is coronavirus (COVID-19)?
The outbreak comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus, a family of viruses that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses, including SARS, which spread from China to more than a dozen countries in 2002 and 2003 and killed about 800 people.
According to the WHO, this coronavirus is spreading more easily than initially thought and human-to-human transmission is occurring (it was originally believed that transmission required an animal source).
Cases have been confirmed in 25 countries, including the United States, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Macao, Nepal, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, and Canada.
How to protect yourself (and others) from coronavirus
According to the WHO, travelers should take certain precautions when traveling in or from an affected area. Symptoms of the current coronavirus outbreak include fever, difficulty breathing, and chest radiographs showing bilateral lung infiltrates (lungs filling with a substance other than air, as is the case with pneumonia).
Travelers should avoid close contact with people who are sick, frequently wash their hands (wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available, the CDC reminded travelers), and avoid close contact with live or dead farm or wild animals.
If you traveled to China and feel sick with a fever or cough, or you have difficulty breathing, you should seek medical attention, avoid contact with others, refrain from traveling while sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing, and wash your hands frequently.
The CDC has alerted clinicians to be on the lookout for patients who have respiratory symptoms and a history of travel to China.
For concerned travelers who are wondering whether wearing a medical mask might help to protect them against the virus, we spoke with some experts on the matter and it turns out that masks might help a little but are far from foolproof.
If the news surrounding coronavirus has you on the lookout for a good hand sanitizer, we have a few staff favorites that meet the CDC’s recommendation of containing at least 60 percent alcohol, which we highlighted in a story about how to best clean your hands on an airplane:
- AFAR’s Maggie Fuller swears by EO Lavender Hand Sanitizer Spray. Buy Now: $22 for six two-ounce bottles. amazon.com
- I myself don’t leave home without Jao Refresher Sanitizer Spray, which also has a light lavender scent. Buy Now: $30 for a two-ounce bottle. amazon.com
- And there’s nothing wrong with good ol’ Purell Hand Sanitizer Gel. Buy Now: $12 for eight one-ounce bottles. amazon.com
Options for canceling your trip to China
Travelers who are nervous about traveling to China or Asia right now and want to know what their options are for canceling or rebooking their trip should contact their airline, hotel, and other travel providers. American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines have all waived change fees for flights to China, which they’ve currently all put on hold (as noted above).
If you purchased travel insurance for an upcoming journey to Asia that you now want to cancel, you will only be covered if you opted for the more pricey “cancel for any reason” (CFAR) coverage.
“Unfortunately, an outbreak of a virus or disease is not a covered reason under travel plans for trip cancellation purposes,” Stan Sandberg, cofounder of TravelInsurance.com, said in a statement. He noted that for those with CFAR coverage some measure of protection may be available.
The Associated Press contributed reporting. This story originally appeared on January 22, 2020, and was updated on February 18, 2020, to include current information.