The deadly coronavirus (officially termed COVID-19) has been rapidly spreading through mainland China and other parts of Asia over the last month. But in the past week, a number of new cases have emerged far from the outbreak’s epicenter, in countries including Italy, South Korea and Iran.
In a little under seven days, Italy went from having just three confirmed cases of coronavirus to 374 cases as of Wednesday. They’re largely centered in the northern Lombardy region, which contains the major manufacturing city and tourist hub of Milan.
On Monday, Italian officials had locked down 50,000 people in 10 towns to try to contain the spread of the disease.
As of Wednesday, new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in several other European Union countries: Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece and Spain, according to The New York Times.
As the threat in popular vacation destinations for Americans continues to grow, PEOPLE spoke to a travel expert about the safety of visiting Europe in the midst of the crisis, and what tourists should know.
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What should you know if you have plans to travel to Europe this spring?
“It’s a tough call to make, but with the CDC warning that the situation is teetering towards a full-on pandemic, the outlook isn’t good,” Tracy Stewart, Content Editor at Airfarewatchdog.com, told PEOPLE on Wednesday.
The decision to travel amid the outbreak is not an easy one to make, and should be taken seriously, especially if you or your vacation companions are pregnant, elderly, or suffer from conditions that may impact the immune system.
If you do have upcoming travel plans, Stewart suggests purchasing travel insurance now, or as far in advance as you can. “Specifically, a cancel-for-any-reason policy,” he recommends.
Unfortunately, without travel insurance, it may be difficult to get your money back if you do choose to cancel your trip. “Aside from China, we’re not seeing much consistency in terms of a refund policy from airlines,” Stewart says. “When asked, some carriers are allowing passengers to rebook for a later date without penalty, but that’s likely to change as things unfold.”
Should you immediately cancel your travel plans?
“Travelers should stay up to date on all official travel alerts and watches,” Stewart says.
Stewart reminds travelers that while it is important to remain calm and level-headed, when in doubt, take extra precautions and stay safe. “If you have even the slightest hesitation, we recommend altering or cancelling your travel plans,” he adds.
Is there a way you can stay safe while traveling?
“The best way to stay safe is to avoid impacted areas altogether,” says Stewart. The majority of coronavirus cases are in mainland China, spreading outward from Hubei province, the epicenter of the disease. As of Feb. 23, China has reported over 77,000 cases and 2,445 deaths.
If you do decide to travel, or have no choice but to travel, there are a few basic practices that can help prevent illness. Stewart suggests avoiding people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes and/or nose, covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue and staying home if you yourself are ill.
“Like most other respiratory viruses, COVID-19 is most likely to spread between people who are in close contact (within six feet) of each other,” Stewart explains. Be cautious of your surroundings, and wash your hands frequently.
Should you wear a face mask while traveling?
Despite many celebrities recently documenting their face masks while traveling, right now the CDC is not suggesting them to people who are not sick.
“While it is cold and flu season, we don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks in the general public to prevent respiratory illness, and we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus,” said Dr. Nancy Messonier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC in a press briefing.
Stewart adds, “According to [the CDC] website, a face mask should only be worn if a healthcare professional recommends it, by those who are confirmed to have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms, and by those caring for or in close contact with sick individuals.”
That said, “if you happen to be sitting near someone who’s sick while traveling, this includes you,” he warns.
In what areas of the world is the coronavirus currently found?
On Feb. 22, Italy, South Korea and Iran reported an alarming number of infected citizens, totaling in the hundreds. Prior to that, the vast majority of new coronavirus cases had occurred in mainland China.
As of Wednesday, the U.S. has had 53 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Of those, 12 cases occurred in people who recently returned from trips to China before news of the outbreak spread. In two cases, the illness was contracted from close contact with an infected individual.
The remaining 39 cases were people who were brought back to the U.S. by the Department of State, either on one of the three chartered flights of Americans who had been living in China, or from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had been quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan.
The total number of cases globally has reached 80,980, with nearly 3,000 deaths, according to Times.
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