How to Travel Amid Coronavirus, According to a Scientist

Dr. Tara C. Smith is an infectious disease epidemiologist and a professor at the Kent State University College of Public Health.

What are your top three most helpful tips for traveling amid coronavirus?

  1. Wash your hands frequently. You’re touching a lot of surfaces that are shared by hundreds or thousands of others from all around the world, especially in an airport. Wash, wash, wash.
  2. Stay away from people as much as possible. Obviously this isn’t always possible if you’re crowded into a small, enclosed space, but you can at least spread out from others as much as possible while you’re waiting to board.
  3. Bring some disinfectant wipes along to wipe down your final seating area: trays, armrests, etc.

How do your tips change if you're traveling on a plane vs another method of transportation (e.g. boat or train)?
I think most of this carries through regardless of transportation, but some types of transportation allow a bit more freedom of movement than others so adjust as necessary.
For extended cruise travel, I’m already on the record as saying that’s 100% not for me but those types of environments call for even more awareness of hand hygiene and awareness of your closeness to other individuals.

Hand sanitizer and soap

Is hand sanitizer actually useful for preventing coronavirus infection? Why or why not?

It should work. I haven’t seen any studies addressing SARS-CoV-2 experimentally, but some were done with SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV which showed that alcohol-based hand sanitizers did work against those viruses.
But remember the novel coronavirus isn’t the only pathogen out there you can contract while traveling. Norovirus, for example, isn’t effectively killed by hand sanitizers, so you don’t want to think about only respiratory viruses and then end up with diarrhea. Hand sanitizer should be used when you don’t have access to soap and water, but handwashing is always better when it’s available.
Should people be afraid to travel? Is it time to panic?
I don’t think panic is ever an appropriate response. I do think concern is important, which makes people look at whether travel is the right thing for them, and it’s hard to make a blanket statement.
Right now even in the US, we don’t know the extent of spread as places are only now beginning testing.

A person waiting for their flight and 2 people holding passports

How can people decide whether or not they should travel?
If I were planning travel in the very near future, I’d assess:

  1. What’s going on (that we know of) at the destination, realizing there may be transmission in that location that hasn’t been documented
  2. Reason for travel and who you will be mingling with there. Will it include individuals from areas that we know are already experiencing outbreaks?
  3. What would happen to you if you got caught up in a quarantine following exposure to an infected individual while traveling? Is this a risk you can/are willing to take?
  4. Personal health status. We know this virus is riskier in individuals with heart and lung conditions, and older age in general. Are you in a high-risk category?
Follow Dr. Smith on Twitter here.

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