Health officials are recommending that Americans avoid all non-essential travel to China, a major step that further isolates the two nations as Asia grapples with a fast-spreading respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus.
The Centers for Disease Control’s travel warning – level 3, its highest, issued Monday afternoon – appears designed to not only protect Americans abroad, but to reduce the chance of domestic outbreaks sparked by returning travelers.
Already, stocks tumbled on Monday’s news of the virus’s spread, with tourist companies and airlines dependent on Chinese tourism particularly hard hit. The S&P 500 fell 1.6 percent, the sharpest decline since Oct. 2.
Tech companies, despite shared investment and collaboration with China, are likely to follow the government’s example.
A Facebook spokesperson in Shanghai told Reuters that the company has asked employees to suspend non-essential travel to mainland China to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The company told employees who had traveled to China to work from home.
Also on Monday, the United States government announced that it is evacuating diplomats and staff from its Wuhan embassy and will fly them in a chartered plane to southern California’s Ontario Airport, about 38 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, on Wednesday morning.
All passengers will be screened for symptoms in Wuhan prior to departure and will be monitored upon arrival in California. The Chinese consulate, first established in 1861, provides emergency services to U.S. citizens in the region and promotes economic and cultural exchanges.
Meanwhile, health officials sought to calm fears that deliveries of Chinese goods are safe. Even the worse case scenario — say, someone sneezes into your Apple iPhone 11 package, then ships it to your home by air via United Parcel Service or FedEx — isn’t dangerous. Based on related research, it is unlikely that the virus can survive more than a few hours on a product or its packaging.
“In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for Disease Control’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a Monday press briefing.
But human-to-human transmission is well established, with an average of 1.5 to 3 people becoming infected from a single sick person.
The evacuation and new travel recommendations are signs of how seriously U.S. officials take the outbreak, which continues to spread throughout Asia and the rest of the world. It has caused 2,700 illnesses in China and claimed 82 lives. Nearly 60 million people have been affected by partial or full quarantines in Wuhan and two adjacent cities.
There are more than 60 confirmed cases in 16 nations, including five in the United States. In the Bay Area, hospitals say they are preparing for cases and are vigilant for patients with recent travel in Wuhan, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated.
Even before the official recommendation, travelers were canceling their plans. An increasing number of China’s tourist attractions have closed, and transportation is interrupted.
Late last week, the night before her flight to Shanghai, Oakland’s Cynthia Gorney got word that her two-week teaching job was cancelled. The school’s main concern was for its students, who travel there from other parts of the country, she said.
She had already packed her bags, making extra room for two big boxes of surgical masks and latex gloves.
“I was emotionally derailed for about an hour. Discombobulated,” said Gorney, a contributing writer at National Geographic and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. “But my friends and family were quite relieved.”
China is currently the fourth most popular tourist destination in the world behind France, the United States, and Spain, with most of its visitors from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Tourism accounted for 11 percent of China’s economy in 2017, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. It projects that by 2028, China’s economy will benefit from travel and tourism more than any other country, contributing $2,731.5 billion to its gross domestic product.
Many airlines are offering changes and cancellations for flights to, from and through mainland China, for travel through early February, with terms varying by carrier. Hotels are also making it easier to change plans. Hilton, Accor, InterContinental Hotels and Hyatt are easing restrictions. Policies vary among tour operators. Some are altering their itineraries.
So far, the outbreak pales in comparison to the number of people killed every year from flu, said Gorney.
But travel warnings are warranted due to uncertainty about the virus, the lack of a vaccine and growing evidence that asymptomatic people may carry the virus, she said.
“It’ll prevent travelers from bringing it back to the U.S., and that’s legitimate,” she said. “I don’t want to come home and transmit it to someone with a compromised immune system, or a baby.”
For more information, go to: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices/warning/novel-coronavirus-china
The Washington Post contributed to this report