Health and Wellness

Is it safe to travel to Italy, Japan (or anywhere else) amid coronavirus outbreak?

@vinnikava | Twenty20

As many people gear up for spring break vacations, concerns about coronavirus continue to grow among travelers.

Coronavirus, which was renamed COVID-19, has infected more than 80,000 people around the globe and killed more than 2,700 people. The World Health Organization has yet to declare a pandemic, but director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Feb. 24 that it "absolutely" has potential to become one.

On Feb. 26, the CDC confirmed the first possible transmission of unknown origin within the United States. As of Monday, there are 69 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., and two people in Washington state have died.  

So, what does the average person need to know about traveling to places where there are coronavirus cases?

Should you travel to Italy or Japan?

On Saturday, popular spring break and dream destination Italy was raised to a "level 3 alert" because there's sustained transmission of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control says people should avoid all nonessential travel to Italy.

Japan, currently with more than 900 coronavirus cases, has been on a level 2 alert since Feb. 19, due to sustained community spread of the virus. Community spread means that some of those who are sick with the virus cannot determine where or how they were infected, and the spread is also ongoing.

According to the CDC, a level 2 warning means older adults and people with chronic medical conditions who are at an increased risk of contracting coronavirus should consider postponing nonessential travel to these areas.

If you're unsure about your individual risk, talk to your healthcare provider or a travel medicine specialist, Scott Weisenberg, MD, director of the travel medicine program at NYU Langone Health tells CNBC Make It.

But the best thing the average person can do is "keep a close eye on the reports of disease in the area," Weisenberg says. Check the CDC's website, or monitor the state or territorial health department websites. If the CDC raises the travel alert for the area you plan to visit, then you "may want to reconsider your trip," because any growth in the number of cases would be cause for concern, he says.

Hopefully, local authorities in these areas will be able to control the numbers from getting worse, says Rachael Lee, assistant professor in the division of infectious disease at University of Alabama School of Medicine, but given how quickly the virus spread in China, it's very hard to determine what will happen.

If you do decide to go to a level 2 country, "practice enhanced precautions," says the CDC, such as avoiding contact with sick people and refraining from touching your face with dirty hands. Being diligent about washing your hands with soap and water is also important. As for surgical masks, most regular versions don't provide enough protection from small respiratory particles, nor are they recommended for anyone besides healthcare workers.

What about America and other places around the world?

In addition to Italy, the CDC does urge all people to avoid all nonessential travel to ChinaSouth Korea and Iran, all of which have level 3 alerts. 

For other locations that are that are at risk of community spread (and potentially a level 2 warning), like Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the CDC, and for Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and Switzerland, all of which recorded new coronavirus cases were this week, it's hard to say.

Travelers are at risk anywhere that people have been infected with coronavirus and the spread is ongoing, Weisenberg says. "The problem is, we don't necessarily know each one of those areas right now." In truth, it could take a couple weeks to months to determine how far the virus has spread, Weisenberg says.

Even though a patient in California tested positive for the virus whose "exposure is unknown," according to the CDC, within the U.S., there are currently no travel restrictions in place, Lee says. People are less likely to be exposed to the virus in brief periods in public, but you should still be safe and careful regardless of where you're traveling, she adds.

That means washing your hands with soap and water frequently (or using a hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol), regardless of whether they appear dirty. Avoid contact with people who appear ill or are coughing in public areas if possible, Weisenberg says. And try not to touch your nose, eyes or mouth with your unwashed hands to avoid self-infecting, he adds.

What about taking a cruise?

High-profile instances of cruises being denied ports and quarantined have drawn lots of attention. Most recently a MSC Meraviglia cruise that left from Miami was denied port at two locations in the Caribbean, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands after a crew member developed a fever, cough and muscle pains. (He later tested positive for the flu, but thousands of passengers were stuck on board for hours waiting for answers.)

The CDC recommended that travelers reconsider cruise ship voyages to or within Asia. People traveling by ship are subject to the quarantine procedures put in place by local authorities at the destinations, so there's a risk that more cruises to other destinations could be cut short or quarantined, per the CDC.

"In general for cruise ships, when you have everybody in close quarters illnesses can go through very quickly," Lee says. For example, highly contagious stomach bugs are common on cruises due to the close quarters and increased group contact, according to the CDC.

Most cruises have pre-boarding screening measures for coronavirus in place, including temperature checks. The CDC suggests that people scheduled to go on a cruise consider the risks associated with staying in the area where a cruise is scheduled to port.

What happens if you do cancel?

If you do decide to cancel your trip, "there is limited coverage available for travelers whose trips may be impacted by the coronavirus," Kasara Barto, PR manager for the travel insurance site Squaremouth, tells CNBC Make It.

Fear of traveling but isn't a covered reason to cancel a flight or trip, although some airlines, including JetBlue, have started to waive cancellation or rebooking fees, she says. U.S. airlines also suspended flights to mainland China and Hong Kong. Popular airlines including Delta and United Airlines have started to waive rescheduling or cancellation fees to South Korea.

"In our experience speaking to customers, travelers are more so concerned with wanting to cancel for fear or uncertainty of the outbreak, especially as the situation progresses," Barto says.

The best and only option would be "Cancel for Any Reason" insurance, which costs 40% more than a standard policy (standard policies cost an average of 4% to 8% of the cost of a trip, according to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association), but allows you to cancel a trip and receive a 75% refund of an insured trip cost if you decide you don't want to risk it. But keep in mind, it's only available within 10 to 21 days of an initial trip deposit.

"Even if COVID-19 is declared a pandemic, that won't trigger trip cancellation benefits as pandemics are not a covered reason to cancel under a standard policy," Barto says. (Some policies specifically exclude pandemics.)

Here's how Chinese consumers are handling the coronavirus threat
Here's how Chinese consumers are handling the coronavirus threat

Ultimately, coronavirus could defer your travel or vacation plans significantly. In addition to the cruise detours, on Feb. 25, a hotel in the Canary Islands in Spain was put on lockdown because a guest from Italy tested positive for coronavirus.

This story has been updated to include the most recent information on coronavirus as of March 2. 

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