What to Know About the Coronavirus Now, According to an Infectious Disease Expert

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Departures interviewed Dr. Robert Citronberg, director of infectious diseases at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago, about what travelers should be aware of at this point.

As the number of the new coronavirus outbreaks rise in China and across the world, travelers are wondering how to best avoid getting sick while flying, traveling through airports, and using public transportation. At this time, there have been some 17,000 outbreaks in China, 11 confirmed cases in the U.S., and the first death outside of China was confirmed in the Philippines over the weekend.

Last week, Departures spoke with Dr. Robert Citronberg, director of infectious diseases at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago, about what to know when traveling during a Global Health Emergency, as designated by the World Health Organization. According to NPR, doctors have made it clear that coronavirus can really only be spread person-to-person, specifically through respiratory droplets—so one must be in close contact with an infected person in order to be in danger of contamination.

Below, we hear from Dr. Citronberg of Chicago about what to focus on to stay healthy while traveling during this time.

Departures: Do we need to wear a mask when traveling?

Dr. Robert Citronberg: "Currently, there are no recommendations for the general public to wear masks when traveling or going outside. People who are immunocompromised do not need to wear masks unless otherwise instructed by their physician for another reason."

Do travel plans outside (or within) the U.S. need to be altered or reconsidered at this time?

"Not at this time. Avoid traveling to China, as is recommended by the State Department, and avoid contact with anyone who has recently traveled to Wuhan City, China. While we are closely monitoring the situation in the U.S., there is still an extremely low likelihood of spread throughout this country. You will not catch the coronavirus by walking next to someone in the airport or on the street. Transmission from person-to-person would result from close contact and prolonged exposure within six feet."

How should we interpret the WHO’s declaration of a global health emergency in relation to traveling in the coming weeks?

"It is fairly common when there is a global outbreak somewhere in the world for WHO to declare a global emergency. No one would argue that there isn't a health emergency in China, especially in Wuhan City. However, the rest of the world does not consider this to be a public health emergency, especially in the U.S."

What are preventative measures we can take in airports and on airplanes to protect ourselves and others from spreading a virus?

"Keep the air vents above your seat open for ventilation. Wipe down the armrests and tray table with sanitary wipes and use tissues to open the bathroom door. Avoid traveling if you are sick."

Any general health tips for staying healthy while traveling this time of year?

"The usual methods of infection prevention are highly recommended:
1. Wash your hands for at least 30 seconds.
2. Use alcohol hand sanitizer.
3. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze.
4. Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
5. Avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes with unwashed hands."

Anything else you’d like to add?

"People are more likely to catch the flu than they are the coronavirus [at this time]. Because we are in the midst of flu season, it is recommended for everyone to get a flu shot. We have sophisticated public health capabilities in this country that would effectively prevent widespread infection of the coronavirus."