Health and Fitness

Should You Cancel Your Flight Because of COVID-19?

An infectious diseases expert answers the most commonly asked travel-related COVID-19 question.
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So you have a trip coming up and it seems like the world is about to succumb to a coronavirus apocalypse. In between the incessant fake and alarmist news is real risk. Do you cancel or do you risk it? Should you stay or should you go?

It is easy to say that you should cancel any unnecessary travel, but then you wouldn’t be reading this. Aside from potentially hefty cancellation fees, it’s actually a great time to see things because all the crowds are gone and the planes are leaving on time due to less congestion. But with all this uncertainty hanging about, you might get trapped when travel restrictions are imposed, or worse yet you might really get COVID-19. If you can postpone your trip with minimal pain and cost, DO SO. 

If you really, really, really want to go, here are things you can do to minimize your risk. You have been warned.

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1| If you are sick, stay home. Please.

From what we know, COVID-19 is transmitted mostly by sneezes and coughs. This is why if you are sick, it is a good idea to wear a surgical mask so you don’t spread the virus. Or better yet, just stay home. Otherwise you WILL BE labeled public enemy number one every time you cough or sneeze. If it is close to a life or death situation (which travelling during a COVID-19 outbreak kind of is), then wear a surgical mask and bring an adequate supply – there are shortages everywhere and you might not be able to get some where you are going. Replace the mask if it is visibly soiled or at least once a day. Sanitize your hands before and after you handle or remove your mask. Wear the mask as consistently as possible, over your mouth AND nose. Dispose of used masks properly.

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2| Wash your hands often. And clean your cellphone.

There is a small risk of getting coronavirus from contaminated surfaces, but this can be mitigated by meticulous hand hygiene. Airplane toilets, seats and tray tables can all have viable virus on them at least for a couple of hours. But even if you get virus on your hands, it still needs to get into your mouth, eyes or nose to infect you. Resist the urge to touch your face. Eat before you get on the plane so you don’t have to open the tray table. Wash your hands every time you touch anything. And for God’s sake sanitize your cellular phone. When was the last time you cleaned it? That phone has been everywhere and is probably colonized with all sorts of nasty stuff. Clean your phone at least once a day, especially if you bring it with you to the toilet. Otherwise you just contaminate your hands every time you handle your phone even if you just washed.

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3| Avoid long haul airline trips. And avoid stops.

Nothing says close contact like sitting next to a sick person for a 14-hour flight. And the airline toilets are killer and will be used by many people many times over the course of a long flight. If you must go long haul, then try to minimize layovers particularly in countries with lots of cases. Try to minimize bathroom breaks if you can. Eat before you get on the plane. Bring hand sanitizer or wash your hands. Most airlines are not giving out blankets and pillows anymore to further minimize the risk, but if you need them you can bring your own. There is no convincing evidence that a mask will help if you are not sick, but if you do opt to wear one then wear it consistently and properly.

4| Avoid the destinations with ongoing sustained community-based transmission.

This one is a no-brainer. China is the big one here but recently South Korea, Italy and Iran have had large jumps in cases. Keep an eye on the daily tallies from reputable websites like those from the CDC and the WHO.

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5| Leave the folks at home. Especially if they are older than 60 years.

Looking at a breakdown of COVID-19 deaths at different ages, it seems that at 9 years and below, COVID-19 looks just like a mild cold, from 10 to 60 years old it looks like the flu, and at 60 and above it looks like SARS in terms of risk of dying. If any of your travel companions are older than 60, leave them at home. The same is true for people with chronic illnesses or those who are heavy smokers.

6| Get your vaccinations, especially for flu and pneumonia.

You should get them anyway even if you aren’t traveling, but with flu season in full swing you should hedge your bets. Some of the deaths in China had both COVID-19 AND influenza and the influenza may have been what killed them. While COVID-19 is bad, COVID-19 PLUS influenza is very bad.

7| Buy travel insurance. The kind that doesn’t exclude COVID-19.

You may need medical care or repatriation and that will cost a lot of money. If you must travel, make sure you are covered and that that coverage includes COVID-19. Otherwise you either incur a huge expense if you get sick, or you might not get care at all.

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No one knows how long or how big this epidemic (not YET a pandemic) will continue. The least risky option is NOT to travel for now. But if you must go, then best of luck to you, wash your hands, and keep your filthy fingers away from your eyes, nose and mouth. Safe travels.

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Edsel Maurice T. Salvana, MD, DTM&H, FPCP, FIDSA is an award-winning infectious diseases specialist and molecular biologist at the University of the Philippines and the Philippine General Hospital. He has written and spoken extensively about HIV in the Philippines, the Dengvaxia controversy, and the COVID-19 outbreak. As a Senior TED Fellow, he is constantly seeking ways to communicate complicated scientific concepts to a lay audience, and strongly believes that this is the best way to combat pseudoscience and fake news.

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About The Author
Edsel Maurice Salvaña, M.D., DTM&H, FPCP, FIDSA
Edsel Maurice T. Salvana, MD, DTM&H, FPCP, FIDSA is an award-winning infectious diseases specialist and molecular biologist at the University of the Philippines and the Philippine General Hospital. He has written and spoken extensively about HIV in the Philippines, the Dengvaxia controversy, and the COVID-19 outbreak. As a Senior TED Fellow, he is constantly seeking ways to communicate complicated scientific concepts to a lay audience, and strongly believes that this is the best way to combat pseudoscience and fake news.
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