A staff member checks a passenger's body temperature at a subway station in Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Picture: Zhang Bowen. 

A staff member checks a passenger's body temperature at a subway station in Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Picture: Zhang Bowen. Author

Should you cancel your trip to China?

By Andrea Sach Time of article published Jan 29, 2020

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The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, is making it difficult for travelers to decide how or whether to proceed with their plans to visit the country. 

The U.S. State Department has issued a Level 2 travel advisory - "exercise increased caution" - for China due to the virus, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging visitors to stay away from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. 

With Wuhan and surrounding areas under quarantine, a countrywide ban on large gatherings to mark the Lunar New Year and some tourist attractions opting to close, the effect on travelers is difficult to gauge.

Lauren Sauer, director of research at the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said the situation is changing by the hour.

The Washington Post asked asked experts in the travel and medical fields about travel during the coronavirus outbreak in China: 

Should I consider canceling or rescheduling your trip to China? 

Yes, if your trip includes a stop in Wuhan or neighboring cities in Hubei province. The answer is less clear for greater China. If you have a trip scheduled for the next week or two, you might want to reconsider. 

The country is grappling with a crisis, and closures of attractions and transportation routes could affect your trip, depending on your itinerary. At the moment, the cases elsewhere in Asia are isolated. However, more vulnerable populations of travelers, such as children, seniors and adults with health issues, should check with a medical professional before departing.

If I cancel, will travel insurance refund my expenses? Yes, if you purchased the "cancel for any reason" benefit. 

This optional upgrade for your policy usually has several restrictions, but if you meet the criteria, you can recover up to 75 percent of your trip costs. If you have standard travel insurance and cancel due to fear of contracting the virus, you will have to absorb the losses. 

When traveling outside the United States, make sure you have travel medical insurance that will cover hospital costs in case you fall ill while abroad or require transport back to the States.

Are airlines, hotels and travel operators waiving change or cancellation fees? It depends on the business. Some of the airlines are, but only for travel to Wuhan. 

For example, on Cathay Pacific, passengers who reserved a ticket on or before Jan. 21 can rebook or reroute their flight or receive a refund without penalty for travel through March 31. Air China is also waiving change and cancellation fees for tickets issued by Jan. 31 for travel by March 29. 

Other airlines loosening their rules include United, China Eastern, China Southern and Hainan Airlines. Some carriers, however, are taking a wait-and-see approach. KLM states on its website, "At this moment, it's not needed to take any precautionary measures or make changes to our flight schedule. We are closely monitoring the situation."

Policies vary among tour operators

David Clapworthy, a Southeast Asia specialist at Audley Travel, said the company is running its China trips as usual, but will alter any itineraries that include Hubei province for no additional charge. 

He added that the guides will provide guests with surgical masks and hand sanitiser, and the drivers will clean and sterilize the sightseeing vehicles before and after outings. 

Abercrombie and Kent does not start its small group journeys in China until mid-March, so standard cancellation policies apply. 

Jean Fawcett, a company spokeswoman, said staff members are receiving daily updates from their China office and are sharing the information with travelers. 

Intrepid Travel's next trip to China is not until mid-February, and G Adventures does not lead tours near Wuhan, so the usual policies are in place.

How will airports be affected? A large number of airports around the world have established enhanced screening procedures for passengers arriving from Wuhan, and a few countries (India, for one) are testing passengers arriving from any destination in China. 

The rules vary by nation. For example, South Korea's Incheon Airport is employing ear thermometers. In Japan, arriving passengers must fill out health forms. Australia is distributing pamphlets.

Travelers flying from Wuhan on direct or connecting flights to the United States can only enter the country in select airports with screening measures in place. 

The CDC and Customs and Border Protection are overseeing the process at New York's JFK airport, Los Angeles's LAX airport, San Francisco International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta and Chicago O'Hare. Airlines will have to reroute or divert flight plans to comply. 

Sauer said the additional steps - a temperature and symptoms check - may add a few minutes to the arrival process. If you test positive, you will be quarantined for further testing by the CDC. Because of the additional measures, Clapworthy suggests arriving at your departing airport three to four hours in advance.

If I decide to go, how can you protect yourself from the coronavirus before your trip? 

Get a flu shot and all of the vaccinations the CDC recommends for your destination. 

This way, if you start to feel sick, your physician can rule out any illnesses eradicated by the vaccinations.

How can I avoid contracting the virus during your trip? 

Avoid contact with sick people and with animals, dead or alive. This means no visits to "wet markets"  Asian markets that sell meat, fish, produce and other perishables - or farms. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director at International SOS, a travel security company, warns against touching your face, to reduce the risk of infecting yourself with germs that can cause a respiratory illness. 

Also keep clear of surfaces that may have been contaminated by animal droppings. 

"Since the source is still unknown," Quigley said, "it's best to implement best hygiene practices and avoid contact with animals and their waste as much as possible." When dining out, make sure that your food, including eggs and meat, is fully cooked. 

Wash your hands frequently and correctly: Use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Also keep alcohol-based hand sanitizer within reach and use a generous amount."

Jesus Gonzalez, a physician with MedStar Health in Washington, recommends travelers wear a medical mask in crowded areas, such as train and bus stations and airports. He said you can remove the mask in restaurants, hotels and other less congested spaces. 

Purchase a box before you leave the States, in case the stores in your destination are running low.

What should I do if you feel sick hours or days after a trip? 

Do not ignore your condition or dismiss it as jet lag. Call your physician and schedule an appointment. Be honest about your symptoms and travel history, including where you went, what you did and the foods you ate.

The Washington Post

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