Update, March 16: The Government of Canada recommends avoiding all non-essential travel at this time. Canadians who are currently abroad are advised to return to Canada as soon as possible.
Nikki Kellermann-Lowe’s bags are packed. Her flights are paid for. She is supposed to be on her way to a dream vacation in the Galapagos with her husband and twin daughters only three days from now—but thanks to coronavirus, her family has spent the week debating whether or not to go.
She’s worried that they might end up in quarantine, and that they might bring the disease back with them. “We don’t want to be putting ourselves ahead of public health,” she says, adding that her mother in law is also very concerned and offered to more than cover their losses if they cancel. “It’s been a super painful call," says Kellermann-Lowe. "We're emotionally and financially invested, and we don’t want to overreact, but at the same time it feels like there is a lot of panic."
She’s not alone. Many families who have been looking forward to March Break and April vacations are now deciding whether or not to cancel their travel plans amid the spread of COVID-19.
Recent news that a Canadian who vacationed at a hotel in the Dominican Republic had been infected—and that others who stayed in the same hotel are now in self-isolation, waiting to see if they develop symptoms—didn’t help. And Canadian airline WestJet is waiving cancellation fees for any flights booked between March 3 and 31.
David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, weighed in on the issue this week, suggesting people ask themselves: “Do you need to go on the trip? Where are you going on the trip? What are your risk factors of you going on the trip? Do you have health conditions? What’s the risk factor of taking your children on the trip?”
That advice isn't exactly firm instruction on what to do, though. Still waffling? Here’s what families should know:
This week, the Public Health Agency of Canada began recommending that all travellers avoid all cruise ships. Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, explained the rationale in a press conference. “Cruise ships have passengers from around the world who may be arriving from areas with known or unknown spread of the novel coronavirus,” she said. “The virus can spread quickly onboard cruise ships due to the close contact between passengers.”
Canadians are also advised to avoid all non-essential travel to China, Iran, Northern Italy, some parts of South Korea, and to consider the risks in the Hokkaido island of Japan.
There is an up-to-date list of travel advisories from the government here. But check regularly because the advisories could change quickly, Tam said. “The global situation has changed quite rapidly… It’s a constant learning from the very rapidly evolving situation.”
The government’s travel advice and advisories page also includes more specific information about each country. For example, it explains that while the US isn’t under an advisory, there have been reports of limited community outbreaks in Washington state, California and Oregon. That might help you decide whether or not to stick with a trip. An up-to-date map from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering is another way to check whether coronavirus is active in your destination.
You should also research the requirements other countries themselves have on travel, says Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician at Toronto General Hospital. For example, Israel recently announced that anyone entering the country would go into isolation for 14 days. Don't neglect to double-check the guidelines for any stopovers along the way, too.
The kind of vacation you have planned is also a factor. A beach vacation is likely lower-risk than bringing family along to a crowded conference. “The risk of infection is increased for certain settings, such as travel to the most affected areas, international conferences, large gatherings in enclosed spaces,” says Tam.
Considering the uncertainties of travelling, and that COVID-19 is causing hospitalizations in some people, it’s extra-important good idea to buy both medical insurance and travel insurance. If you book a flight and Public Health declares a travel restriction after that, your travel insurance should cover that cancellation. And if you buy “cancel-for-any-reason insurance,” you’ll be covered if you just decide it’s a bad idea, even if there’s no formal travel restriction in place.
However, if you’re booking a flight to a place where there is already a travel advisory out for the coronavirus, travel insurance won’t be covered. And if there’s an active health advisory, your medical insurance probably won’t cover COVID-19 either, since it then becomes a “known event,” says Kevin Dorse, Assistant Vice President of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association.
The last thing to consider is the vulnerability of your family. “We know that kids tend to do much better with this infection than adults [and]. We also know that people with medical conditions might fare much worse. That should come into consideration, when you’re thinking about travelling,” says Bogoch.
That’s what tipped mom-of-one Kelly Abdelhay into deciding to carry on with her travel plans to go to Hawaii for her brother’s marriage with her four year old in a few weeks. It’s an important trip—her brother is getting married, and her four-year-old son is the ringbearer. And on top of that, her airfare and hotel is non-refundable.
She admits she's a bit afraid of being quarantined, but decided not to cancel after calling her doctor, who is both a pediatrician and ER doc, for advice. “I spoke to our him about it, and he said as of right now there’s no reason for us to cancel—there have been no [serious] cases in children under 10, so really the risk is minimal for my son as well as for me,” she explains.
If you do decide to go, Public Health is also suggesting anyone who has travelled watch for symptoms after they come home. “It is very important for all travellers coming to Canada to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 [fever] for 14 days, and avoid places where you cannot easily separate yourself from others if you become ill,” said Tam. “Stay home if you are sick, and call ahead to health lines or public health authorities before seeking medical care.” A list of public health lines for every province is available here).
Williams suggests that people might want to keep children away from vulnerable populations, like grandparents, for up to two weeks after they return. For some families, this could be the deal-breaker, as many parents rely on grandma and grandpa for childcare.
If you’re travelling, lower your risk by avoiding large crowds, washing your hands often, using hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available, and avoiding touching your face.
In the end, whether or not to travel to places that aren’t under travel advisories is a personal decision, says Bogoch. “Everyone has a different threshold for risk, and a different risk tolerance,” he says. “If people have a lot of anxiety, even if they’re going to a place that’s not a hot spot, it might ruin their whole trip. Whereas I’ve chatted with a lot of other people, and they say, 'I’m going to go, I’m not going to go to packed nightclubs or big stadiums, and I’m going to wash my hands'—and I think that’s a very reasonable thing to do.”