Should you let COVID-19 dash your March Break plans?

An infectious disease specialist weighs in on whether families should be reconsidering their vacation plans amid the coronavirus outbreak, even if they're not travelling to a declared no-go zone.

Even if you're not travelling to a declared no-go zone, here are some things to consider

Tourists walk on the beach in Varadero, Cuba. (Fernando Medina/Reuters)

You probably wouldn't take your kids to China, Italy or Iran right now in light of COVID-19, but what about that March Break trip to Cuba, Dominican Republic, the Big Apple or Disney?

In Ontario, the province's medical officer of health is advising people to carefully consider their March Break plans in light of the spread of the novel coronavirus.

There are now more than 100,000 cases worldwide, including Ottawa's first case, a man in his 40s who had travelled to Austria and is currently in self-isolation. 

The federal government has a travel advisory with a growing list of no-go countries, but there are many destinations with some COVID-19 cases that aren't on the list. In the U.S., several states including New York, Washington and Florida have declared states of emergency because of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.

Dr. Nisha Thampi is an infectious disease physician and the director of infection protection and control at CHEO. She was a guest on CBC's Ottawa Morning with Robyn Bresnahan. The following conversation has been edited for length.

Dr. Nisha Thampi is an infectious disease physician and director of infection protection and control at CHEO. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

What advice would you have for families who have overseas plans?

I really feel for families during this period of uncertainty. The situation is so fluid, I would pay careful attention to the Government of Canada travel advisories. It's pretty clear there are some countries where there is intense local transmission, and travelling there should be avoided.

With the situation changing so rapidly, you run the risk of travelling somewhere that's currently low-risk, and then being there when the cases spike. How do you balance being careful and yet carrying on?

The decision to travel during this period is very personal. But I do think that there are considerations. Look at your travel and health insurance plans to see if they will cover all possible scenarios. Speak to your employer about what contingencies are available if you're unable to return to work. When you're travelling, think about handwashing and make sure you can socially distance yourself from sick travellers, which can be hard on a cruise ship, for example.

When you return, you'll have to consider who you're going to be around. If you're going to be around people who have respiratory illnesses, you have to consider that, too, surely?

Asymptomatic individuals are not the drivers for an outbreak. We're still learning about the novel coronavirus, and to what degree asymptomatic people shed the virus and infect other people. Irrespective of where you've travelled, the recommendation will be to self-monitor, if not self-isolate for the 14 days after you return. And that's not something we tend to do very well. We vacation hard and then we come back and we work hard. But this is an important time to be thoughtful about the symptoms that we are bringing to our public spaces.

Are you concerned that people who might be asked by their employers to self-isolate will get through eight days, and then get bored, go outside and not adhere to the 14 days? 

We rely heavily on Ottawa Public Health, which supports the self-monitoring and self-isolation process. We have to trust that our colleagues are thinking about what's right, not just for themselves, but for their families as well as the community.

If you had a trip booked right now to one of these state-of-emergency states, would you go? 

I would review my risks. I go on vacation to escape the stresses of work and daily life, and if I am unable to have that laissez-faire approach when I'm away, then I'll probably reconsider.

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning


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