Your Questions About U.S. Travel And The Coronavirus, Answered

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A passenger at Boston's Logan Airport, waiting for his plane. (Nick Dynan for WBUR)
A passenger at Boston's Logan Airport, waiting for his plane. (Nick Dynan for WBUR)

As corporations cancel all business travel and the federal government discourages international travel, there are still questions about what to do about trips booked within the United States.

On Radio Boston, we asked two doctors who think a lot about travel and medicine what they think: Dr. Lin Chen, the Director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital and president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, and Dr. Natasha Hochberg, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and co-director of Boston Medical Center's travel clinic.

Here's a lightly edited selection of your questions, and the doctors' answers:

My 30-year-old son in Seattle is planning on flying to Florida to visit family. He has a history of severe respiratory infections and pneumonia. He thinks he'll be OK if he gets tested today and will wash his hands a lot. Should he take the trip? 

Dr. Chen: Reconsider the trip. I think there is great concern that people who potentially may be shedding the virus may transmit to others. Now, if your son has a chronic respiratory infection, it may be hard ... to differentiate that from a new coronavirus infection. So I think one of the first questions to ask is how critical is this trip? How necessary is this trip? How important, how essential is this trip? Is there a better time for doing this? Is there an increased risk for him at the destination or is there a potential of carrying the disease with him? Is there a potential that he cannot return it if illness comes over?

Washington state has significant cases going on and community transmission of COVID-19. So there is certainly concern that he may be carrying the infection.

My husband, my 10-month-old child and I are scheduled to go to Boston in about 10 days for a family function. There are going to be people there from all the way down the eastern seaboard and multiple locations in Canada. I'm not super worried about our health. [But] to what extent should I be concerned that if I'm going to an event like this, I could then become responsible for sort of spreading this virus?

Dr. Chen: I'm not sure I have a clear answer for you. I think everybody needs to reassess their travel and consider what might be the best option for them. If it's a very small reunion or gathering with just family, that might potentially be reasonable.

But it is attending a large meeting, a large gathering where people from all walks of life are meeting together and unclear who might have might be carrying the virus. I think that then the threat may be higher.

I was planning a trip down to New York City this weekend for a wedding of one of my very best friends. What would be the more socially acceptable option? To miss a wedding or to potentially be a carrier or pick up this virus? 

Dr. Hochberg: You have a social responsibility for the people that you're going to see. Presumably, if there's a wedding or there's a family reunion, you're going to have a mix of younger adults, but also older adults that are potentially at higher risk or people with those conditions like heart disease and things that put them at higher risk. I think that there is concern about potential transmission and being in a large group setting. So I think that there's other ways to show your love and support for the couple. It might be worth a conversation with them to sort of say, listen, I want to be there and support you, but maybe this isn't the best time to do it.

I'm an 80-year-old man traveling with a 71-year-old woman. We're planning to travel from Boston to Florida. Is it risky for us to be traveling if we're both in good health? 

Dr. Hochberg: Because of your age, unfortunately, you are at higher risk if you were to become infected. If you do need to travel, I think the important thing is sort of reiterating the things that Dr. Chen and I have discussed of wiping down the surfaces, washing your hands frequently, not touching your face, avoiding other individuals as much as you can, sort of social distancing measures.

If it's possible to delay your trip, that might make sense.

My family has booked a cruise in April. We will lose the money if we cancel. Do we go?

Dr. Chen: There's a great concern about cruises. I would think the cruise ship companies have probably ... ramped up their procedures in terms of decontamination and cleansing. But I think because you're going in April and that is quite soon [before] all the outbreaks [could] have settled down ... It's somewhat unclear to me that you could be sure that people going on the cruise along with you will be perfectly healthy. So I think it's better it would be better to postpone this trip.

If someone coughs me on the subway and I get exposed, what's the incubation period? When do I see symptoms in myself? 

Dr. Chen: The typical incubation period is considered to be between two days to 14 days, but mostly around three to five days. [But after day five] I think you need a few more days to be sure.

What should I do about the surfaces that I encounter while I'm traveling, like a tray table on an airplane or the back seat of a taxi or Uber? 

Dr. Chen: With coronavirus, there's still a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unknowns about how long this virus survives on surfaces and what type of surface, because there may be variations. So the prudent thing is for everybody to try to minimize touching, directly touching surfaces that multiple people may have had contact with while you're traveling. That includes being in taxis and airplanes and trains and also to wipe down the places where you might touch directly yourself and washing hands.

What should I use to wipe down those surfaces?

Dr. Hochberg: They should be using a bleach wipe. So not just sort of a wet wipe, but actual bleach wipes ... the CDC has some great information about sort of how long the surface has to stay wet ... I would just underscore the value of looking to the CDC and looking to the Department of Public Health website to get accurate information.

Does it matter where I sit on an airplane? 

Dr. Hochberg: Interestingly, there's some data to suggest that if you were to sit in the window seat of an airplane, there's the potential for less transmission because people are less likely to be going by you, potentially less sort of contact with other people's hands and the surfaces that they're touching. So if you can, sit in a window seat.

This segment aired on March 11, 2020.


Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.


Jamie Bologna Senior Producer/Director, Radio Boston
Jamie Bologna was senior producer and director of Radio Boston.


Zoë Mitchell Producer and Studio Director
Zoë Mitchell was a Radio Boston producer and studio director.


Paris Alston Host, Consider This
Paris Alston was WBUR's host of the Consider This podcast and a former producer for Radio Boston.



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