As concerns about the coronavirus mount, how should the meetings and travel industry respond? Northstar Meetings Group’s Loren Edelstein sought advice from Dr. William Spangler, a board-certified emergency physician and global medical director for AIG Travel Guard. The following is excerpted from that conversation, which will be the basis of an upcoming edition of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals.
You advised the travel community during the SARS epidemic. How is this different?
Different is a good word. It is a similar virus and is in the same family. However, SARS had a mortality rate of anywhere from 10 to 17 percent. So, if you got it, you could be in very serious danger. This one is probably going to be far less. While there are more people experiencing this particular disease, it is not as fatal and not as dangerous to the individual who contracts it.
Who is most susceptible to contracting coronavirus?
This one seems to affect elderly folks, obese folks and immunocompromised folks, much as a flu virus would.
Should people stop traveling?
It all depends on so many different things. If you're transiting through Shanghai, that is different than taking a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. It really depends on where you're going, what the route is, how healthy you are and your underlying medical history. I think if you are a 65-year-old person with COPD and diabetes, China is off the grid. However, should you cancel your trip to Cancún? I don't think so.
Are face masks effective?
The kind that are available over the counter are not meant to stop micron-sized organisms from getting into your body. Do they remind us to not touch our hands and face? Yes, they're very good at that because you can't pick your nose when you have a mask on if you're wearing it appropriately. But do they stop the transmission of this particular virus? A little bit, but not to the effect that we want. That being said, there are other masks used by the medical community that are personally fitted per person. Those are going to be fairly effective; but the average mask probably isn't going to do much.
What other precautions should travelers be taking?
There are things we should be doing every time we travel, because there are literally thousands or millions of viruses out there. First, we should be cleaning all of our surfaces when we get on the plane. You know, we've all read the stories about the seat-back tray table. That's probably the most horrible place on the entire plane, including the bathroom. So, yes, we need to have our handheld wipes to clean the tray table and arm rests, at the very least. We need have to have our little -- less than 3.2 ounce -- bottle of alcohol-based sanitizer for our hands. When we get into the hotel room, we have to wipe down the phone and the TV remote. And we have to stay away from that person who’s coughing. Unfortunately, if the person coughing is sitting next to you on the flight, there’s not much you can do about it.
Let’s talk about hand washing. Is it important to use antibacterial soap?
It's the physical motion of washing your hands for 20 seconds, soap or no soap, actually. Soap certainly helps, but if you don't have it, just the running water and the friction on your hands is what makes a difference. So, washing hands is certainly very, very, very necessary. There's not a sink everywhere, so that's why the little bottle of alcohol-based sanitizer is so important. You can use that as often as you want.
In a business setting, we're shaking people's hands. Should we be advocating fist bumps or elbow taps instead?
Maybe we all just do our fist-bump thing. We thought about the elbow thing, but now we're supposed to sneeze and cough into our elbows, so maybe that's not a good idea. But yeah, it’s something we need to worry about. During flu season I never shake my patient's hands, but I do during the summer when flu is not prevalent. If you're going to shake hands, it's kind of rude to turn around and use your alcohol sanitizer, but it's totally appropriate.
It seems like these are good habits regardless of coronavirus.
Yes, hopefully this will help in the long term. Maybe when you have a cold, stay home. Don’t go to the office. Don’t shake hands. When we’re sick, we can self-impose a little quarantine around ourselves. I read an article the other day where a doctor said maybe the regular old flu season won't be so bad this year because people are actually washing their hands like we've been telling them to for 20 years.