King County residents and people across the country are scrambling to rethink their travel plans because of the rising number of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Katie Kurtz, a Seattle freelance journalist, was planning to meet her family in Tucson, Arizona, in two weeks for a celebration of life for her uncle who died recently. Now, after news about coronavirus-related deaths in Seattle, Kurtz, who has been feeling unwell for about a week, said she is leaning toward canceling her trip, getting herself checked and possibly going under self-quarantine.

Kurtz said she wonders if Seattle will be declared a hot spot for the illness.

“It seems like such a day-to-day thing now that I feel like I don’t know when I’ll have to make a [final] decision,” Kurtz said.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

The situation is fluid. On Saturday afternoon, a King County man became the first person in the United States to die from SARS-CoV-2. On Monday, the death toll here was six. As of Monday afternoon, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had confirmed the United States has 64 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by this strain of coronavirus — 16 of them were diagnosed in the United States. (The larger number includes the people flown back to the U.S. by the State Department.) But many more cases have been diagnosed by regional public-health labs and are awaiting CDC confirmation.

Fears of the spread hit financial markets hard last week.

The CDC has not listed any travel advisories within the United States so far. The CDC uses a three-level warning system to help consumers make travel plans. Because of outbreaks in China, South Korea, Italy and Iran, those countries have earned a Warning Level 3 for coronavirus — which means consumers are advised to avoid all nonessential travel. Japan is on the Warning Level 2 list (“practice enhanced precautions”). Hong Kong is listed at Warning Level 1 (“travelers advised to practice usual precautions.”)

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After cases appeared in Italy, Kenmore resident Julie Condit grew concerned about her college-aged daughter’s plans to go to London and the south of France in March.

“So much can change between now and then,” Condit said. “It seems like every day there’s more news coming out about this.”

After Saturday’s announcement of the first U.S. death caused by SARS-CoV-2, Condit said her concerns have shifted to wondering if her daughter will be restricted from traveling outside of the country because of an outbreak in Washington.

“I’m also concerned if she gets exposed to it here, then goes there and gets sick,” Condit said. “So much to consider, but still at this point we just need to wait and see how things are closer to her travel date.”

Travel Coverage

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The volume of travel from Seattle to the Asia-Pacific region has declined, and anecdotally it appears that people are also traveling less frequently within the region. Lisa Anciaux, director of Travel Products at AAA Washington, said the travel agency has seen a notable decrease in travel plans to Asia and an overall decrease in new travel bookings over the past three weeks — including cancellations of trips to Alaska and Canada. Anciaux suspects that these cancellations are largely occurring among senior travelers.

In accordance with the CDC’s travel recommendations, AAA Washington is working with its customers to provide guidance on where it is safe for travelers to visit. For customers particularly concerned about the virus, the agency suggests travelers consult with their doctors about their plans, stay updated on the CDC’s travel advisories and find a travel-insurance policy that might cover coronavirus-related issues, such as potential quarantine or exposure.

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Medical professionals say it’s difficult to tell what will happen in the near future.

“This is not a binary situation; travel is not ‘safe’ versus ‘unsafe.’ In making decisions about travel, individuals must weigh risks and benefits of travel for their particular situation,” said Dr. Geoffrey Gottlieb, a University of Washington Medicine infectious-disease physician and the interim chair of the UW Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases, who is helping lead the UW’s campus response to the virus.

“Given this is a rapidly evolving situation, … if individuals do decide to travel in the coming days, weeks or months [it’s important] that they follow CDC guidelines about minimizing exposure,” Gottlieb said.

If you plan on traveling, here’s some useful information on travel insurance and what airports and cruise lines are doing to minimize risk:

Travel insurance

Consumers should note that most travel-insurance policies do not cover trip cancellations over fear of exposure — though Anciaux emphasized that travel-insurance companies and policies vary widely.

For instance, Allianz Travel, the travel-insurance company AAA-Washington primarily works with, released an updated coverage announcement Feb. 7 stressing that many travel-protection plans do not cover trips canceled because of epidemics and explaining that even policies that do would only cover travel that was booked before the risk of the virus at the destination was publicly known.

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For Allianz insurance customers whose trips have been canceled because of the virus, Allianz is temporarily offering refunds of the travel-insurance policies these people have purchased. They’re also allowing customers to change their plans’ effective dates to cover a new or rescheduled trip.

Despite growing fears about the virus and its potential effects on the travel industry, Anciaux believes people will keep traveling and the industry will recover.

“We’ve seen things like this happen before,” said Anciaux, citing 9/11, the avian flu and the SARS outbreak of 2003-4. “Travel is a personal choice. It’s discretionary dollars. Health is obviously a big issue for people, so this will affect the travel business. It will pass. We know that from what we’ve seen in the past. How long it will take, we’re not sure. But I think there’s still a lot of great places to feel safe traveling to, and we have to just keep watching that and see what happens.”

What is Sea-Tac Airport doing?

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is one of 20 U.S. airports where the CDC has begun enhanced screening and prepared quarantine stations if needed.

The airport has recently added 40 more hand-sanitizer stations throughout the terminals and increased the use of disinfectant and the cleaning of public areas that passengers touch often, such as handrails and door handles — particularly in the airport’s international-arrival areas.

Airport officials recommend travelers continue proper hygiene behaviors, including covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing, washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

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Since February, Delta and Hainan airlines have suspended flights from Sea-Tac to China. Last week, Delta also announced a reduction of service between the United States and Seoul, South Korea. Over the weekend Cathay Pacific announced reduction in service to Hong Kong from five times per week to three to four times per week in March and April. Korean airlines just announced suspensions Tuesday for their Seoul flight.

As airlines and cruise lines announce suspensions and cancellations, some are waiving change fees and offering refunds:

  • Alaska Airlines announced it will waive change and cancellation fees on tickets purchased by March 12 for all customers who decide not to travel through June 1.
  • Delta has waived fees for changing international tickets.

Travelers should check with their airlines and hotels for specific information about fees and refunds, said Kate Hudson, communications manager for the Port of Seattle.

“We’re working with our airlines and our partners to make sure we’re monitoring this every day because it’s such an evolving situation,” Hudson said. “This is something the whole world is watching.”

What about cruises?

Cruise lines have been hit hard by the spread of coronavirus, with some ships, including Holland America’s Westerdam, having been turned away from multiple ports because of fears about the virus.

Seattle-based Holland America announced last week that all Asia cruises on the Westerdam will be canceled for the rest of the cruise season. For cruises that continue to operate, the company is implementing additional disinfection and enhanced screening measures and restricting customers from boarding the ship if they have traveled from or through mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao or South Korea, or have had contact with people who have the virus within 14 days.

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Hudson says operators and crew members of cruise ships arriving through the Port of Seattle are experienced in identifying illness and working with public-health officials to reduce risk.

“The vast majority of our passengers are taking a round-trip cruise from Seattle to Alaska,” Hudson said. “Any international passengers would already have gone through screening at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport or the Peace Arch entrance in northern Washington.”

(Anika Varty / The Seattle Times)

This story was updated on March 3 at 10:33am to correct information about flight suspensions.