The New Coronavirus COVID-19 -> Facts, Predictions & Travel Impacts
Another week, another barrier….or so it seems. The Universe does not seem keen on us traveling around these days, and the latest wrinkle in the plans seems to be COVID-19.
As yes, it’s finally arrived in Europe, and it looks like it’s here to stay, at least for a little while. Plus the news is going NUTS about it, as are the governments, which has a trickle-down impact on our lives, whether we want it to or not. And that brings me to the questions that a lot of people are asking themselves these days.
Will the new coronavirus change our travel plans? Should it? Do we even need to worry about it?
Now, I’m a very scientifically-centered gal so I tend to focus on numbers & science rather than react to hype. But I also can’t ignore the hype, as it affects our day-to-day life (e.g. if people decide to panic-buy, or closures & quarantines are enacted, for example). So I try to live in balance with all that by analyzing the data as best I can, monitoring the news, and then taking sensible precautions. At least that’s what I attempt to do!
Since this seems to be the “hot topic” of the day, I thought I’d share all this on the blog, including some of the facts behind COVID-19, my own personal predictions on how this thing is going to play out and what we’re doing about it.
Hopefully this will help so that you can make your own decisions in the face of this mega-news item, without panic (as should always be the case). Here goes….
UPDATED INFO: For those of you just landing here, things have progressed very rapidly over the last few weeks. Please see my updated post on all this as of March 15th COVID-19 Needs Action -> Decide Where You Wanna Be, And Go There Now
What Is COVID-19?
COVID-19 (original name “2019 novel coronavirus”) is a coronavirus. Coronaviruses are actually a whole family of viruses that can cause respiratory illness in both animals and humans. Some previous ones that you might have heard of (for humans) are SARS and MERS. COVID-19 is simply the most recently discovered virus. It’s brand new and was first reported in Wuhan, China at the end of December of last year.
Isn’t It Just Like The Flu? Or A Cold?
No, it’s not. People who catch it may exhibit typical flu-like symptoms (e.g. fever, cough), but there are specific differences (e.g. breathing difficulties/shortness of breath).
Also it’s more contagious than the flu (higher R0) and the death rate from COVID-19 is currently much higher. Latest info shows a 3.4% global death rate (as reported by WHO on Mar 3rd, 2020) as compared to typical annual flu death rates of ~0.1%. That is significant.
For factual purposes it’s important to understand that the death rate quoted above is only based on known cases, and is highly skewed towards older or immune-compromised people. For young & healthy people, current data indicates that COVID-19 is really no more deadly than regular flu (see below for more on this).
These numbers could all change of course, as the virus spreads and we learn more about it. This is simply the current info we have from official sources.
COVID-19 Is Here (And IMO It Can’t Be Contained)
I’ve been closely tracking the progression of this new coronavirus since it was first announced in China at the end of December. Once the cat was out of the bag (which alas, took a while) the Chinese went full gear into containment mode. For a while it seemed like their efforts actually might work, but despite massive closures/confinements it wasn’t enough. Once the first cases spread out of China to other Asian countries, and then (more recently) to Europe and USA, containment was IMO a lost cause.
WHO has recognized the spread. As of this week they raised the risk assessment for COVID-19 from “high” to “very high” in both EU & USA, although they have not yet labeled it a pandemic (= a new disease that has spread globally). I think that’s just a matter of time.
Here are the facts:
- COVID-19 is fairly infectious. From current data, the infection rate (R0) of COVID-19 is estimated to be ~2.2 which means that on average, one person infects 2.2 others. It’s not as crazy infectious as something like say, measles but it’s pretty darn good at getting around.
- Testing hasn’t kept up. There have not been enough test kits to keep up with the spread of the virus. In USA, initial kits were faulty and had to be recalled so as of Mar 1st there have only been 459 people tested (in the country!). Compare this to 65,000 people tested in S.Korea. Basically we’re waaay behind the curve in testing, which means the virus is way in front of us in terms of getting around.
- There’s no herd immunity or vaccine. The other key thing about COVID-19 is that it’s a new virus with no herd immunity (no previous immunity in the population) and no existing vaccines. In other words, there’s really not much to slow it down.
Given all these facts I personally believe COVID-19 is going to continue spreading and quite rapidly too. Cases have already spread well beyond what we know and IMO containment simply isn’t a reasonable expectation anymore.
But It’s Not Going To Last Forever
If you’re a numbers type person it’s useful to know that most viral infections follow a “normal(ish) distribution” type curve, with very rapid rises in infections early on, peaking off at some maximum after which they more slowly start to drop off. How long those curves last just depends on the virus and how quickly/effectively containment measures are enacted, but they all end, at least for the instance of that particular outbreak (viruses can re-emerge, mutate or return seasonally).
Based on the data that I’ve seen so far for COVID-19, infections in China seem to have (maybe, possibly?) reached their peak and may actually be edging to the other side of the curve (new infection rates are reportedly starting to drop). If those numbers hold, this means it’s taken around 2 months for the virus to “peak” in China and things should improve over the next few months. This is encouraging news.
Here in Europe & in USA however we are only at the very beginning of the curve, with infections just starting to rise (over the last few weeks). As a result I predict that over the next few weeks we’re going to see a very rapid rise in infection rates across EU & USA, which probably won’t peak until several months from now. Hopefully, after that the virus will slowly fizzle out again.
This is all my personal inference and I could easily be wrong, but it seems to make sense, based on the data and what has happened so far in China.
For Most People COVID-19 Symptoms Are Mild
Although COVID-19 is fairly infectious, it has low death rates, especially in young people. And this should be very comforting news for the general population!
According to the current numbers, if you’re young and healthy, COVID-19 seems to be fairly benign. For ~80% of people symptoms will be mild or moderate (source: WHO) and for healthy people in age ranges 0-50 there is over 99% cure rate. That’s exceptionally high, and means your chances of anything bad happening are really, really low.
With that said, even if you’re in the young & healthy group you should still take sensible precautions, for the sake of those around you. Although this thing may be mostly benign for the young, it affects us all and that is something we must be very vigilant of (see below).
More Info: 12 Coronavirus Myths Busted By Science
However Older Or Immune Compromised Do Need To Be Vigilant
If you are older or immune compromised, however you do need to be more vigilant as the numbers change dramatically with age.
An analysis of ~72,000 cases (from Chinese Center For Disease Control And Prevention) showed that for those over 70, death rates were ~8%, and for those over 80 the number rose to ~15%. For immune-compromised people or those with pre-existing medical conditions (heart disease, diabetes etc.) death rates hovered ~6-10% rate. Those are not insignificant numbers so if you are in those categories, or have family in those categories you shouldn’t ignore them.
Note that this does not mean you should panic, but if you are in a more vulnerable group you do need to be aware of the risks, prepare yourself appropriately and take sensible precautions (see below).
So What Precautions Are Sensible?
This is the nitty gritty of the matter. Even if you’re in the younger group, it’s important to take basic precautions not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of people (older, immune compromised) who may come into contact with you. The following simple precautions are recommended by WHO, and literally everyone can do them:
- Wash Your Hands Often. This is probably the #1 thing you can do to keep yourself healthy. Washing you hands in soapy water will kill any virus on your hands. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer also works. So wash your hands, often and wash them thoroughly.
- Keep Surfaces & Clothes Clean. Current understanding is that the virus can persist on surfaces for a few hours, possibly up to several days. So, cleaning surfaces with disinfectant is a good precaution. Also, if you suspect your clothing may have the virus on it, then washing them will take care of that.
- Practice Social Distancing. Stay away from folks with obvious symptoms and cover your mouth & nose with a flexed elbow or a tissue if you sneeze or cough. If you’re sick, stay home. In France specifically, the government has also recommended that folks do not shake hands and do not kiss on the cheek (“faire les bises”) as they traditionally do when they meet.
For the older or immune compromised, I would personally add some additional recommendations:
- Avoid Big Crowds. Less interactions = less chance of catching the virus. If you’re older or immune compromised it makes sense to avoid tightly crowded areas.
- Order Critical Medications. If you are on critical meds, I do think it’s a good idea to talk to your doc/pharmacist at this time about stocking-up on a few months of them. There’s no need to go crazy here, but getting a little extra stock while this thing plays out is IMO a sensible idea.
That’s it really. Simple stuff, nothing panicky, nothing crazy, but small, sensible precautions.
What About Stocking Up On Food?
Sadly, this is where panic & hype can come in to play.
I would not be surprised to see folks start panic-buying as soon as infection rates rise a little more in both USA & Europe (and that’s likely to happen very soon!). It’s human nature, and unfortunately I’ve seen it happen before. I don’t think you should panic-buy, but I also don’t think you can avoid what’s coming so it’s worth planning ahead, especially if you need to self-isolate.
What we’ve done in our family is stock-up on several weeks of food (food & drink that we will consume anyway, plus some durable dry goods), as well as some household basics (toilet paper, cleaners, tissues etc.), medications and pet food. Nothing crazy, but enough to get us by if we need to self-isolate for 14 days or hang back for a little while. Personally, I think that’s being sensible and prepared, without going over board. I advise you do the same.
What About Face Masks?
Face masks are really popular whenever viruses like this crop up (you see them all over social media), but according to the CDC & WHO they are not recommended unless you are sick yourself or caring for a sick person.
Also, in order to be effective the masks need to be a specific type (N95), and discarded after just one use. So, they are not fully effective unless you get the right ones, change them regularly and use them properly.
NOTE/ It’s important to know that many of the masks you can buy on the internet are not authentic. There are lots of suspect sellers out there (incl. on Amazon) selling sketchy products, so please beware of this.
At the moment we’re not buying any, and will not do so unless the official recommendations change. As this thing progresses they will become crazy pricey and a precious resource. Besides, the professionals (doctors, hospitals, nurses etc.) need them first and foremost, so any existing mask stock should go to them.
More Info: WHO COVID-19 Myth Busters
What If You Think You Have Been Infected, Or Have Symptoms?
The guidance is really clear here.
If you think you have been infected, or begin to feel unwell then stay at home. Simply self-isolate, rest & monitor yourself. This way you don’t infect anyone else, and you don’t become an unnecessary burden on the hospital system. For most folks this will be all they need to do. Remember, if you’re young & healthy your symptoms are likely to be mild, and you have over 99% chance of recovering!
If your symptoms develop (e.g. fever, cough, breathing difficulties) then call emergency services. They will take it from there.
In France, guidelines are the same. France has actually been quite proactive on COVID-19, in part because they’ve had some terrible experiences with flu outbreaks in the past. As of today there is a free info number for anyone wanting information on COVID-19: 0 800 130 000. In addition, if you have symptoms then you are advised to call SAMU at 15. They will assess your case and either ask you to self-isolate or take you in to one of the 108 hospitals that have been “activated” across the country to deal with the new coronavirus.
Will It Affect Travel? Yes
This is where the rubber hits the road, especially for those of us who like to travel.
My opinion is that this new coronavirus has already affected travel and will continue to do so over the next few months. Whether it’s hype or over-reaction, the truth is that governments, cruise ships and airlines ARE reacting to the virus, so you will see effects in your day-to-day travels, whether you like it or not.
It’s already started too. In Italy ~11 towns in the Northern region have been locked down, and the Venice carnival celebrations were cut short. In France several events have already been cancelled, schools have been closed in the Oise, and they’ve banned gatherings larger than 5,000. I expect more cancellations & closures as infection levels rise.
All this will impact airlines & tourism quite heavily, and I know folks who’ve already had their vacays cancelled (e.g. cruise ships cancelling) or are re-assessing their plans. If you have plane travel planned over the next few months I recommend either buying exchangeable tickets, or getting “cancel for any reason” travel insurance (covers ~75%), just to maximize your flexibility.
For motorhome travelers in EU specifically, there’s currently not much impact. All borders are open and all campgrounds (except in heavily affected areas) seem to be operating as usual. That could easily change however, as infection levels rise and city closures or quarantines get enacted.
For RVers in the USA it’s about the same (not much impact at the moment). However if we were fulltime RVing in the USA right now, we’d probably be making plans to stay in lesser populated areas, just until we see how all this plays out.
Basically if you’re on wheels, staying aware and staying flexible is your best option right now. And thankfully being on wheels makes that easily possible!
So, Why Are You Guys Not Heading Out?
Our original plan was to head out in LMB to Spain next week, and then we saw the first infections crop up. Based on what I’d been reading about the virus & its spread in Asia, I knew this was likely the beginning of the “beast” here in Europe. If it were just us, that may not have changed our plans too much. After all, we’re both young and healthy, in the “low worry” group.
But we’re not alone. We live with dad who is older (in the much more vulnerable group), and that’s important. We have to be vigilant for his sake, and think of how closures might affect our getting back here, if needed. Plus I have to admit I’m not keen on being quarantined somewhere else, if one of us happens to catch this thing. There’s our comfort to think of in all this too.
So we’ve decided, for all our sakes to hang back and see how the see how the numbers & news play out over the next few weeks, before we make any next plans. This thing is here and it’s spreading fast so I think we’ll know quite quickly how the various European countries are going to react. Anyway it’s just another short delay right?
Where Can I Keep Up To Date On The News?
There is lots and lots of news coverage going on about COVID-19, but also lots of unnecessary worry. If you want the “real deal” I recommend sticking to official sources of info. In specific the following links:
Official French Website: https://www.gouvernement.fr/info-coronavirus
And for those interested in tracking the virus numbers in real time
Global Cases of COVID-19: https://www.gisaid.org/epiflu-applications/global-cases-covid-19/
Coronavirus Worldmeter Tracker: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
Hopefully this was helpful to you all, giving you some facts to make your own decisions, outside of the panic. So, what are you doing? Are you traveling? Or staying still? Worried, or not worried at all? DO share in the comments below.