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UPDATE: Since this article was first published, the State Department has advised U.S. citizens to “avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.” According to the department’s website, “U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expanded the number of countries on its “warning” list of where it believes there is a risk of infection, and is urging caution for those traveling within the U.S.
The number of people whose coronavirus infections have been linked to the Biogen conference has grown to nearly 100 in Massachusetts and more out of state.
Officials in Tennessee announced Thursday that a man who recently traveled from Boston to Nashville tested positive for COVID-19. Three Biogen workers — one from out of state and two others from out of country -- who attended a company conference in Massachusetts last week have developed the illness, which is caused by the coronavirus. And a number of state residents who have contracted COVID-19 had recently traveled internationally.
Stories like these have many people asking:
How safe — or risky — is it to fly?
Should I cancel a trip I’ve planned?
Can I come home early from my trip?
Here are the answers to a few of your coronavirus-related travel questions.
Can I cancel a trip that I’ve booked out of fear of the coronavirus?
That depends on whether you bought a refundable ticket or have the right kind of travel insurance. Regular travel insurance won’t cover a cancellation due to fear over the coronavirus outbreak. For that, you’d need to buy a “Cancel for Any Reason” (CFAR) policy.
“They’ve become quite popular in the last few weeks,” said Jonathan Breeze, CEO of AardvarkCompare, a travel insurance comparison website. “We’re seeing about a 50% increase in the amount of policies being sold.”
A few things to note though: a CFAR policy typically needs to be purchased within a couple of weeks from the time you booked your trip; it will usually only cover about 75% of your costs; and New York state does not allow its residents to buy CFAR policies.
Some credit cards come with automatic travel insurance for users. Check with your provider to see if you'd be covered.
How do I pick a travel insurance policy?
There is no one-size-fits-all policy, according to Christopher Elliott, founder of consumer organization Elliott Advocacy. Factors such as your age, the length of your trip, and your coverage priorities all figure into the decision. However, Elliott recommends taking the time to read the insurance contract before buying and consider "worst-case scenarios," such as sickness or flight delays.
What if I booked a flight and want to reschedule it?
Several airlines — including American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue and United — have been waiving change fees for flights purchased between certain dates. Even if your purchase falls outside that window, “it’s always worth asking,” said Seth Kaplan, transportation analyst for WBUR’s Here & Now. “You’re asking for an exception,” he said, but if you’re polite and you explain your situation, you might get a break.
What if I want to end my trip early, say, because the outbreak has spread to a country that I’m currently in?
In most cases, “somebody abroad saying, ‘I don’t wish to be here anymore,’ isn’t covered by regular travel insurance,” said Breeze. Again, this is where a Cancel for Any Reason policy would come in handy. With many CFAR policies, a traveler can not only recover some of the initial cost of the trip, Breeze said, but in many cases the policy will also cover the additional cost of coming home.
Is international travel riskier to your health than domestic travel?
It depends. Dr. Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, said she would not recommend traveling to countries that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put on its “warning” list. With that list, the CDC is suggesting people avoid non-essential travel to places such as China, Iran, South Korea, and most countries in Europe.
But that doesn’t mean that domestic travel is risk-free. To put things in perspective, the virus is already here, with case numbers on the rise.
“We already have community transmission within the United States,” said Doron. “So, at some point, it's not going to be any riskier to go to another country than it is to stay right here.”
Indeed, the CDC is urging caution for those traveling within the country, advising would-be travelers to consider the following:
- Is COVID-19 spreading where you live?
- Is COVID-19 spreading where you’re going?
- Will you or your travel companion(s) be in close contact with others during your trip?
- Are you or your travel companion(s) at higher risk of severe illness if you do get COVID-19?
- Do you have a plan for taking time off from work or school, in case you get exposed to, or are sick with, COVID-19?
- Do you live with someone who is older or has a severe chronic health condition?
If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, you may want to reconsider, delay or cancel your interstate trip.
Since the virus is already out there, should I avoid plane travel just to be safe? After all, when you fly aren’t you breathing in recycled air?
“Planes tend to be low humidity, but the air's actually pretty clean. It gets recirculated through these HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filters that really are very good at clearing stuff out,” said Vicki Hertzberg, director of Emory's Center for Nursing Data Science, who co-led a study on flights and disease transmission with scientists at Boeing. “Also, they suck in about 50% clean air with every recirculation. So in some aspects, the air on a plane is cleaner than what's going on in your new office buildings.”
Moreover, Dr. Mark Gendreau, chief medical officer at Beverly Hospital, said that airlines have a high incentive to keep their ventilation systems well-maintained: “If the HEPA filter is not changed regularly, if the system is not maintained well, it puts a lot of drag on the engines, which will increase the fuel consumption, which is quite an expensive proposition.”
Another important thing to know: the new coronavirus is not airborne. Instead, it's transmitted through droplets of fluid or mucus that you cough or sneeze out, which generally don’t travel further than six feet. However, if those droplets land on a surface that you later touch, you can pick up the virus that way.
People can help protect themselves and each other by taking precautions such as washing hands frequently, coughing into an elbow, and trying not to touch eyes, nose and mouth.
“Good hand hygiene is the solution,” Doron said.
And not just in the bathroom. Even on the way back to your seat after a bathroom visit where you washed your hands, "one may be touching doors, doorknobs, seats," says Dr. Lin Chen, president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and director of the travel medicine center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Massachusetts. So it's a good idea to use hand sanitizer at your seat before eating pretzels or sweeping hair from your face.
The CDC says your sanitizer should have at least 60% alcohol content.
How clean are planes anyway?
Airline sanitization is also something to consider. Some airlines are stepping up their cleaning game. American Airlines says it is conducting a "more thorough cleaning of all hard surfaces" and removing self-serve snack baskets on some international flights. Alaska Airlines says that, since March 2, it has been "enhancing" aircraft cleaning between flights. For planes whose schedules allow, the cleaning policy now includes seats, overhead air vents, bathroom door handles, window shades and luggage compartment handles.
Flights often turn around quickly, which could lead to possible lapses in the cleaning process, so Chen suggests bringing alcohol wipes to clean the areas you personally touch — including your seat belt, tray table and armrests. In a pinch, squeezing hand sanitizer onto a tissue and wiping down your armrest would probably work, she says.
"We really don't have data about how long the coronavirus survives on surfaces," Chen says. Other coronaviruses can last for a few hours or a few days on different materials, so for the time being, "it's best to be more cautious," she says.
NPR reporter Pien Huang contributed to this story.
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