What Is Coronavirus And What Do Travelers Need To Know?
A coronavirus is a kind of common virus that causes an infection in your nose, chest, sinuses, and upper throat. Though some can cause lower respiratory illness – worrisome for seniors, babies, and those with weakened immune systems – most coronaviruses are not dangerous. However, in early January 2020, the World Health Organization identified a new type: 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Wuhan City, China.
Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is believed to have originated in animals before being transmitted to humans. It now spreads between humans primarily through infected secretions, like the droplets of moisture found in a sneeze. Like other dangerous coronaviruses, including MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrom) and SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrom) at its most serious, coronavirus (2019-nCoV) causes pneumonia, is resistant to antibiotic treatment and results in death. However, at present, it is thought to be milder than MERS and SARS and symptoms take longer to develop.
Note that while coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is believed to originate in animals and possibly initially spread through markets where meat was processed and sold, there is no evidence to suggest that it is spread through pets such as cats and dogs. Pets can catch some kinds of coronaviruses and the infections can become severe. However, these kinds of viruses don’t seem to spread to humans.
How Serious Is The Coronavirus?
At present, the fatality rate for coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is lower than that for MERS and SARS. There is now a total of 4,610 confirmed cases of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in mainland China and the death toll stands at 106 people. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed five cases in four states (Arizona, California, Illinois, and Washington) and an additional 73 other cases remain under investigation.
Not all cases are serious. Patients typically experience a mild cough for about a week, followed by shortness of breath. It is this shortness of breath that has led patients to go to the hospital. An estimated 15% to 20% of cases are considered severe, requiring intervention such as ventilation in the hospital. Thankfully, however, most of the time symptoms go away on their own with rest, hydration, and treatment with over the counter decongestants and fever medication.
Like all coronaviruses, those most vulnerable to coronavirus (2019-nCoV) are senior citizens, infants and babies, and those with compromised immune systems such as those with HIV/AIDS or cancer.
What Are The Symptoms?
The main clinical signs and symptoms of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) include fever, difficulty breathing, and congestion. Chest X-rays will demonstrate bilateral lung infiltrates. In severe cases, coronavirus (2019-nCoV) can lead to pneumonia, kidney failure, and even death.
What Distinguishes Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Symptoms from Other Common Ailments?
In the early stages, the symptoms of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) are much like any other kind of coronavirus. However, if you have the symptoms of acute respiratory illness during or after travel, you should seek medical attention and share your travel history with your doctor. The same applies to people who haven’t traveled but have been in contained areas with a large number of people, like a concert or sports venue. Wuhan, China, is a major international transit hub. It is not unlikely that you could come into contact with an infected person indirectly at a large public gathering.
What Preventative Steps Can Travelers Take?
The World Health Organization advises the public to:
- Frequently clean their hands by using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
- When coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw the tissue away immediately and wash hands
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever and cough
- If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical care
- When visiting live markets in areas currently experiencing cases of coronavirus (2019-nCoV), avoid unprotected contact with animals and surfaces in contact with animals
- The consumption of raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided
- Raw meat, milk or animal organs should be handled with care, to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods, as per good food safety practices
Together, these steps will minimize your exposure to coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and more commonplace viruses such as the common cold.
What Should You Do If You Feel Ill From Coronavirus?
If you feel ill with fever, cough, and labored breathing that feels worse than the standard cold, contact your doctor right away by phone. Explain your symptoms and concerns and be sure to include recent travel patterns, even if you weren’t in China. As you wait for your doctor’s advice, avoid contact with others and, should you need to go to a medical office or emergency room, wear a mask. Avoid contact with other people, wash your hands frequently, and disinfect surfaces in your home.
Remember, even if you are not ill with coronavirus (2019-nCoV), you will still be practicing good public hygiene to prevent others from catching your bug by taking these precautions.
What Should Travelers Do?
The CDC currently has a Level 3 travel warning – their highest possible level – in place for Wuhan, China, which is the center of the outbreak. However, they rank the rest of China at a Level 1, which corresponds to “practice usual precautions”.
Alas, the spread of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) comes at the worst possible time as millions of people are traveling to and within China for Lunar New Year celebrations. As travelers celebrate with family dinners and home visits, they are at higher-than-average risk. Visitors tend to let their guard down when visiting private homes and don’t take the same health precautions as tourists.
As such, the CDC recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China. Travelers should note that Chinese officials have closed transportation links in and out of Wuhan, including buses, subways, trains, and the international airport. Even if you wanted to visit the region, it is virtually impossible to do so.
Does Travel Insurance Cover Illness From Coronavirus?
If you have a travel medical plan, you should be covered for a doctor’s visit or a hospital stay, depending on your plan restrictions. However, if you do not have a plan in place, insurance companies have put a ban on covering people who are visiting China.
If you purchased trip cancelation insurance, unfortunately, disease outbreaks are not covered under the regular cancelation rules. It may be best to contact your airline and lodging accommodations to find out if they have any policies in place for this outbreak.
What Does The Future Hold?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working to share its test for diagnosing coronavirus (2019-nCoV) through respiratory serum samples with other labs but for now, it remains the only laboratory in the United States which can definitively confirm the virus.
Another testing process that is underway is the race to create a vaccine. In particular, the National Institutes of Health is researching the possibilities but, at best, it will take several months before clinical trials start and more than a year before anything would be ready for the public.