Health and Wellness

Cruises quarantined, flights stopped: Why risk of Americans getting coronavirus at airports, cruises, theme parks is still low

Costa Smeralda cruise ship is seen docked at Civitavecchia port after one passenger fell ill with a high fever on January 30, 2020 in Rome, Italy. Around 6,000 passengers of a cruise ship are quarantined after a Chinese woman showed symptoms of novel coronavirus. (Photo by Baris Seckin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Anadolu Agency

A Carnival Princess Cruise has quarantined 3,700 people aboard a ship in Yokohama, Japan, for at least 14 days, after 10 people tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday. Another cruise operated by Genting Dream Cruises carrying close to 2,000 passengers that left from Taiwan is being held in Hong Kong while tourists and crew members are tested for the virus.

This comes after a cruise ship was held in lockdown in Italy on Jan. 30 because a passenger from Macao developed a fever and respiratory symptoms. (It was later determined not to be coronavirus.) And airlines including Delta, American Airlines and United have suspended flights to mainland China.

The United States State Department told Americans not to travel to China Friday because of the coronavirus outbreak that has infected over 24,000 people in 24 countries and killed more than 490 people worldwide. The Trump administration announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for any Americans who have visited Hubei province in China in the last two weeks, and urged Americans who have been to China to self-quarantine for 14 days and be on the lookout for symptoms.

So what does that mean for Americans traveling or visiting highly populated tourist spots?

While World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Jan. 29 that the "continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside of China are, of course, most deeply disturbing," the immediate risk of this virus to Americans is still considered low, the CDC said Jan. 30.

Simply, put the U.S. has had time to be proactive and prep for the arrival of coronavirus, which is one reason why experts say Americans can be calm.

"If you give a virus a head start, and hide it in the midst of flu season, it's going to spread more widely," Adalja says, describing the way coronavirus began spreading in China. But the Centers for Disease Control has been proactive from the beginning, setting up protocols to screen travelers who are returning from China, and pushing out information to clinicians about how to be alert for the virus, he says.

Travel restrictions around the world and lockdowns in China have been implemented to stop the virus from spreading. At 20 airports in the United States with quarantine stations, passengers from China will be screened for the virus and health officials will decide whether it's safe for them to enter the U.S., according to the CDC.

So if you have a flight or cruise planned to somewhere besides China, there's no need to cancel, Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and member of the Infectious Disease Society of America, tells CNBC Make It.

The same is true for highly populated areas, such as theme parks or shopping malls, Adalja says. In China, popular tourist sites such as the Forbidden City in Beijing and Walt Disney's Shanghai Disney Resort, have closed until further notice in response to the outbreak.

And for travel on public transportation like buses or subways in the U.S., the general risk of coronavirus is low, Geoffrey Gottlieb, professor at the University of Washington who specializes in infectious disease and travel medicine, tells CNBC Make It.

Of course, people should still follow standard respiratory hygiene practices, including washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the CDC suggests. If you're sick, you should stay home, cover your cough and clean any surfaces you touch frequently. And if you visited China in the last 14 days and develop a fever, cough or trouble breathing, the CDC says you should seek medical care and tell your doctor about your travel before you visit a doctor's office or ER.

"There are other viruses circulating around so if you do get cold and flu like symptoms it's more likely it's going to be one of those viruses and not this novel coronavirus," Adalja says. Flu activity is considered high in the U.S., and will likely continue for weeks, per the CDC.

Ultimately, information is developing quickly about coronavirus, so it's wise to be alert and watch for any changes, Adalja says. "But right now it's not a major threat to the average American," he says.

The virus first emerged in Wuhan, China on Dec. 31. Though there are still a lot of questions about how the virus is spreading, and how it behaves, it's believed to spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. The first human-to-human transmission of the virus within the United States was detected on Thursday in Chicago, making the U.S. the fifth country where the virus is spreading between humans.

This story has been updated to include the most recent information on coronavirus as of Feb. 5.

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