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How to Travel and Commute Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak, According to Experts

Photo: Markus Hartel/FlickrVision

A version of this story originally appeared on the Strategist US.

As fast as the novel coronavirus is spreading, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not explicitly told Americans to stop traveling or commuting. In the UK, the NHS advises that “most people can continue to go to work, school and other public places. You only need to stay away from public places (self-isolate) if advised to by the 111 online coronavirus service or a medical professional.” Which means we’re still taking public transit, hailing taxis and other ride-share services, and boarding trains and planes. But with a virus that advances through person-to-person transmission, what are the best practices for traveling among countless other humans day in and day out?

The first thing to know is that if you’re healthy, you can travel. “We’re following the CDC’s guidelines every day, and currently there are no specific limits or recommendations regarding travel on public transportation,” says Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious-disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital. “Nor is there any recommendations not to travel on a plane, as long as you’re going to a country where the virus isn’t endemic.” (At the time of publication, the Foreign Office advises against travel to Hubei Province in China and against all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China; against all travel to the cities of Daegu, Cheongdo, and Gyeongsan in South Korea; and against all but essential travel to Italy.)

If you feel sick, however (symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath), all of the doctors we spoke to say that you shouldn’t be traveling at all — to work, around your city, or on holiday. “The CDC’s recommendation remains clear,” Hirschwerk told us. “If you have an illness, you should not be in an area that can affect other individuals.” If you feel sick and want to see your doctor, you should always call their office first for advice on whether you should be leaving your house, according to pathogens specialist Dr. Syra Madad. But since many people will likely ignore this advice, you may still be wondering what healthy people who are travelling can do to avoid catching the coronavirus from someone else.

Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, says that anyone who sees an obviously ill person while travelling should stay as far away as possible and “make 100 percent sure you’re not touching your face.” In fact, every expert we spoke to said the No. 1 rule to keep from contracting the coronavirus while travelling is not to touch your face, because, as Dr. Waleed Javaid, the director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown, puts it, our eyes, nose, and mouth are “portals for viruses to get into our systems.” While our doctors cautioned against purchasing a surfeit of disease-preventing supplies to travel with, they did say you should keep a handful of essentials at hand. A note that, because many of these products are currently in high demand, we’ve seen that both the number in stock and price can change daily.

When it comes to the products you should carry with you as you travel, all of our doctors recommended having tissues to cough into. Both Hirschwerk and Madad told us that using proper cough etiquette during travel is essential, which is where pocket tissues come in. According to Madad, if you find yourself needing to cough while on the go, “cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw that in the trash. If a tissue isn’t available, sneeze into your elbow.”

Despite your gut instinct, if you’re riding on a subway, you should still grab on to the pole or handrail, according to our experts. “At this point, the injury you’ll receive from falling because you aren’t holding on is far more severe than the chance you’ll protect yourself from infection by not touching a pole,” Hirschwerk says. Not a single expert says that wearing gloves or a mask would really help prevent contracting COVID-19 — but Madad did say that a mask could actually increase your chances of infection, because “it’s going to make you touch yourself and the surrounding area more.” Because they encourage holding on for safety, the panelists we spoke to recommend using hand sanitizer to sterilize your hands until you can get to a sink with soap and water for a proper wash.

Editor’s note: If coronavirus is your main concern, make sure you select a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol content, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the threat of coronavirus, demand for hand sanitizer has been increasing, so stock has been constantly fluctuating at every online retailer we’ve checked. If you’re so inclined, you can actually make your own hand sanitizer at home using aloe-vera gel and rubbing alcohol.

Photo: Courtesy of the vendors

According to Dr. Glatt, if you are going to travel, one underreported way to prevent catching the coronavirus (or any virus) is to cut your fingernails. “Nails should be kept at the shortest size that is comfortable to you,” he told us, “because dirt under fingernails can carry viruses.”

Many travellers are questioning whether they should be wiping down surfaces on the plane and trains before sitting down. While none of our experts recommend wiping down your seat on a plane and train (because, they say, that means you could touch more germs), Madad does recommend wiping down “high touch” surfaces — or things you’ll touch repeatedly when going from place to place — as often as possible. Examples she gives include doorknobs on your house, as well as those in your office. For this, Madad recommends using wipes specifically designed for disinfecting, like those from brands like Dettol. “People think baby wipes are enough,” she told us, “but you need something with chemicals.”

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, be it your office or a faraway hotel, all of our experts say you should wash your hands immediately. “Hand hygiene comes first, second, third and fourth in this,” Glatt told us. “Every time you see a sink, use it.” It’s an instruction that’s backed up by data. According to Madad, during the 2008 swine-flu pandemic, people who washed their hands frequently saw their risk of infection reduced by between 30 and 50 percent. As for how to wash your hands, all the doctors we talked to shared the same wisdom — wash for 20 seconds and nothing less — with Madad adding, “Use warm water, sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice, and cover both sides of each hand completely.”

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How to Travel Amid the Coronavirus, According to Experts