New Brunswick

To travel or not to travel: Only go if it's essential, says infectious disease expert

As the coronavirus continues to spread, including now to New Brunswick, people should really think twice about following through with their travel plans, says Dr. Abdu Sharkawy.

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy says the time has come to limit travel — and definitely no cruises

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy says Canadians should reconsider their travel plans for the next few weeks. (Dr. Abdu Sharkawy/Facebook)

As the coronavirus continues to spread, including now to New Brunswick, people should really think twice about following through with their travel plans, says Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist with the University Health Network and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. 

For weeks, Sharkawy has been encouraging people to stay calm and not panic. But the time has come to warn people against travelling unless necessary, he said Wednesday. 

"I've been relatively even-handed about this over most of the last few weeks, but we don't have any choice at this point in time but to be a little bit more conservative and to suggest that we really want to limit travel of any kind if it's not absolutely necessary — at least until this starts to settle down in the next few weeks."

Can you still travel to countries on government's travel advisory?

Unless absolutely necessary, you should avoid the countries that have experienced outbreaks, Sharkawy said. 

"When talking about vacations and non-critical travel, we have to be more responsible to our communities and to the rest of the world, in terms of how we're deciding our travel plans going forward," he said. 

And that goes for all countries — whether they're on the government's advisory list or not, said Sharkawy. Even less "exotic" locations can suddenly experience outbreaks — as parts of Michigan and New York learned recently, he said. 

Should you cancel a trip you've already booked?

Sharkawy said you should seriously consider putting off all travel plans. 

"I think it comes down to the reason for the trip, and the destination is also important," he said. "The overarching message should be, more often than not, you probably should cancel.

"I don't think we want to see a situation where we're looking at the possibility of testing 70 per cent of our population that has travelled anywhere. That will place a tremendous burden on our health-care system and I don't know that it will be an efficient way to detect cases, but it may be something we have to consider if we don't impose a message that is much more firm in terms of an advisory to people to not travel." 

While Sharkawy usually hesitates to offer "blanket statements," he is unequivocal about cruise ship travel. 

"Cruise ships unfortunately provide a perfect cesspool environment for spreading infections."

Small children serve as "amplifiers or vectors" of infectious agents, and elderly travellers may have conditions that leave their immune systems compromised. 

"The clustering of cases and outbreaks that we've seen in the past few weeks on multiple cruise ships really underscores the fact that this is really not an advisable form of vacation to consider at this point in time," said Sharkawy. 

The Grand Princess, shown here docked at Oakland, Calif., carried some people who tested positive for COVID-19. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

While airports don't present the same sort of confined area for transmission as cruise ships, airplanes are close, he said. 

Airlines like Air Canada and WestJet, two of the carriers that serve New Brunswick, say they have stepped up their efforts to combat the spread of the virus.

On its website, WestJet says it "has taken additional precautionary measures to expand and increase the frequency of our aircraft sanitization at our busiest bases. WestJet has also added two additional disinfecting products to our cleaning arsenal for aircraft that are stationed overnight across our network."

How are airlines handling cancellation requests?

Air Canada is waiving its change fee on all new bookings until March 31, as well as for flights booked before March 4 with an original travel date before April 30, said a statement Wednesday by president and CEO Calin Rovinescu. 

According to its website, WestJet will waive change fees on all new bookings made between March 3 and March 31. The airline will also waive the fee for changes or cancellations on flights booked before March 3 — for travel in March or April 2020.

And it appears that many travellers are taking the airlines up on their offer, said Sharkawy. 

WestJet is waiving its cancellation and change fees in the wake of the coronavirus. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"Having travelled from Toronto to Los Angeles [on Tuesday], I have to say I was rather sobered by the fact that I had never seen the Toronto airport as barren as it was," he said.

"Part of it was a relief that I wasn't going to be in a tight crowd of people, and part of it was somewhat eerie that we had reached a certain level of fear and panic, quite frankly, that has people afraid to go anywhere. Some of that is certainly justified — how much, I guess, time will tell."

Sharkawy was in Los Angeles to appear as a guest on the Dr. Phil Show to talk about COVID-19.

"We're running behind on the Dr. Phil Show ironically enough because they're short-staffed because people are sick, so they are doing the appropriate thing and self-isolating," he said.

What should you do if travel is essential?

If you find yourself having to travel, Sharkawy said, there's no need to panic or to wear an N95 mask. But there are precautions that travellers can take. 

"If you are going to travel, it's important to maintain vigilant hand hygiene," he said. 

"At the end of the day, it's everyone's individual responsibility to maintain, as good as possible, hand hygiene and health hygiene in general to break the chain of transmission."

He said if everyone "buys into that philosophy" it will have a bigger impact on the spread than travel restrictions and avoiding crowds. 


Mia Urquhart is a journalist with CBC New Brunswick, based in Saint John. She can be reached at


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