We talked to an epidemiologist to get the answers to all your coronavirus questions.

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As the new coronavirus quickly spreads around the globe, health officials are hustling to manage the spread and cushion the blow of a pandemic. 

Travel bans are limiting entry to high-risk countries, borders are being sealed off, and people are being forced to stay in quarantine for weeks on end.

The new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 causes the disease COVID-19.

These new containment measures might seem like a surefire way to contain COVID-19, but infectious disease experts are hesitant about how effective they are.

New research from Umea University in Sweden shows that the quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan actually caused the coronavirus to spread much more intensely than it would have if passengers were allowed off the ship.

The infection rate was nearly 4 times higher on the ship than the most at-risk areas in mainland China. 

Meanwhile, the evidence is iffy on whether travel bans do anything — some suspect they may only slow the spread by a few days or weeks, but ultimately aren’t able to prevent the spread. They’re also extremely costly. 

We spoke with Anne Rimoin, PhD, MPH, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Infectious Disease Division of the Geffen School of Medicine, to understand if quarantines and travel bans work.

And if not, what does?

Healthcare Website: Why can quarantines, such as the one on the cruise ship in Japan, backfire? Why can they up the risk of transmission? 

Dr. Anne Rimoin: Quarantines are designed to prevent disease transmission by restricting the movements of individuals who have been, or might have been, exposed to a contagious pathogen until they’re out of the window of developing disease. 

It’s difficult to properly execute any quarantine, and the realities of a cruise ship, where space is limited and people are existing together in such close quarters, is an ideal situation for spread of disease.

A mass quarantine can put people at greater risk of infection if you can’t identify and isolate those who are ill from those who are well.

Face masks. How do they impact transmission? Do we need them? 

A regular surgical face mask isn’t designed to keep out viral particles, thus is unlikely to provide significant protection against [novel coronavirus] infection.

A mask is useful if you’re sick and wish to prevent spread of disease to others. But if you’re feeling ill, it’s best just not to go to public areas and to stay home, if that’s an option. 

The N95 respirators can provide protection against [this virus] if worn correctly, however these masks need to be fit-tested and are difficult to wear properly for an extended period of time. These masks should be reserved for healthcare workers who are at the greatest risk of acquiring infection.

The CDC recommends that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people without symptoms or people who do not know they have contracted the virus. Cloth face masks should be worn while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here.
Note: It’s critical to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

What’s your take on travel bans to/from high-risk areas — do they actually work?

Travel bans are complicated and often counterproductive.

It’s possible that a travel ban from the most high-risk areas might slow spread of disease at the very beginning of an outbreak, but as many health experts have noted, with a disease like COVID-19, travel bans aren’t particularly effective. In this case, the genie is already out of the bottle. 

It has been established that COVID-19 can present with mild or no symptoms at all. As a result, it can spread before someone knows that they are ill.

Millions of people have been traveling internationally without symptoms or mild disease for weeks before the epidemic was recognized. There are cases all over the world at this point.

Should people cancel their travel plans, either internationally or domestically? 

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s really up to the individual and how comfortable they are with risk.

We’re learning more about this virus on a daily basis and our understanding of the risks is evolving rapidly. Traveling may become more stressful over the coming weeks and months, in particular, internationally. 

My advice is: Check the CDC travel website regularly and get travel insurance that will cover changes related to COVID-19. If traveling during this time makes you nervous and you have the flexibility to change your plans, it might not be a bad idea.

Many airlines are waiving change fees, so it may be worth your while to check on your options if you feel like you would prefer to stay home.

What’s the most effective way to limit the spread, or is it a combination of different measures? 

Limiting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 will be based on a combination of measures.

For the individual, everyday good hygiene practices are the key to limiting the spread of COVID-19. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, regularly disinfect your cellphone and common surfaces (countertops, remote controls, refrigerator handles), avoid people who are sick if possible.

Be sure to get your flu shot and do your best to stay healthy. Avoiding hospitals and medical facilities unless absolutely necessary is a good idea to reduce exposure to COVID-19 and other pathogens like influenza.

Also being a good public health citizen by staying home when you’re sick — or doing your best to avoid contact with others — will help limit spread of the disease.

Community measures to limit spread may include cancelling events or meetings where large numbers of people will gather.

Schools and businesses should all be working on putting together a pandemic preparedness plan. Schools may close or use tele-education. Businesses will need to do their part by encouraging employees to take advantage of opportunities to telework when possible. Where teleworking isn’t possible, employers should be generous with sick days and supporting employees to the best of their ability. 

The bottom line is that we’re all in this together and have to do our best to limit spread of disease.