IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|

Coronavirus COVID-19 Q&A

The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation and information about the virus is still emerging. IAMAT is updating this Q&A page as new details are confirmed.

Travel-related COVID-19 questions and answers:

1. Should I travel internationally?

At this time, international travel is still not advised. IAMAT advises against all non-essential international travel, including to destinations with few or no COVID-19 cases.

Many governments and public health authorities continue to advise against non-essential travel and restrict international departures and arrivals – as such, you may have difficulty entering or exiting your destination.

If you choose to travel internationally, you may encounter enhanced screening and monitoring at entry and exit points including temperature checks and questions about your travel history and health. You may also be required to self-isolate upon arrival.

See the following infographic if travel is unavoidable: 

Travel and COVID-19

2. Where can I find information on international travel restrictions?

To see what restrictions are in place, refer to your home country’s government and national health authority as well as your destination country’s government.

You can also see a complete list of international travel restrictions and advisories here.

3. When will it be safe to travel internationally?

This is a global public health crisis caused by a disease that currently has no known treatment or preventative medicine or vaccine. As such, it is not advisable to travel internationally due to the risk of spreading or getting COVID-19 - at this time, staying home is the best way to prevent yourself and others from getting sick. 

When it will be safe to travel internationally depends on a few factors. Consider the following before booking your trip:

4. I am currently abroad - what should I do?

Due to international travel restrictions, there are many travellers who are experiencing delays or disruptions to their travel plans and who may not be able to return home as planned. It’s important to stay up-to-date on the pandemic’s developments, your government’s response, and the response of your host country. The following steps can help you while abroad:

5. I am currently abroad and am experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 - what should I do?

If you start to experience symptoms of COVID-19, take steps to isolate yourself and call an IAMAT doctor or local medical facility. Seek medical attention immediately if you experience difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Follow the advice of the local health authority.

6. How is my travel health insurance coverage affected by COVID-19?

It will depend on your policy. Some providers are still covering travellers who booked their trips prior to the COVID-19 outbreaks, but many have stopped providing coverage for COVID-19 medical expenses. As such, if you contract COVID-19 during your trip, you may be responsible for all costs associated with your medical care, including expenses related to travel delays and disruptions because of your illness.

Travellers looking to purchase travel health insurance now will likely not find coverage for COVID-19 related expenses. This is because the majority of travel health insurance plans do not provide coverage for pandemics. Travellers unable to return to their home country may experience difficulty extending their travel health insurance coverage or getting an extension that includes coverage for COVID-19-related expenses.

If you are in a situation where your travel health insurance provider is denying you coverage or refusing to pay a claim in full, there are steps you can take:

Try to remain patient throughout this process. Insurance companies are experiencing a high volume of calls due to the pandemic, so it will take time and perseverance to get results.

7. I am returning to my home country – what should I do?

Returning travellers should refer to their local and national health authority for guidance. Public health authorities around the world are requiring or encouraging returning travellers to self-isolate for at least 14 days once they arrive home.

Approximately 80% of persons infected with COVID-19 show mild symptoms. As such, it’s important to practice self-isolation even if you feel fine.

Make sure to take the appropriate steps (as advised by your public health authority) to consult with your workplace, school, or child’s school regarding self-isolation after travel. 

8. What can I do to prevent COVID-19 on an airplane?

On an airplane, much of the same simple measures being used on the ground apply including:

9. What is the risk of contracting COVID-19 on an airplane?

Viruses and germs do not spread easily on airplanes due to the highly filtered air that circulates throughout the cabin. However, the risk of contracting COVID-19 on an airplane is likely similar to the risk associated with being in other confined spaces with a high density of people such as a bus, train, or movie theatre for a prolonged period of time. This is because COVID-19 is transmitted through sustained close contact with a person expelling infected air droplets by coughing, sneezing, exhaling or talking, and it may not be possible to keep a safe distance of 2 metres / 6 feet while on board a plane. Moving through airports may also put you at increased risk of contact with an infected person or surface. This is why it’s important to avoid travel if you feel unwell and to follow safety guidelines detailed above.

General COVID-19 questions and answers:

1. What is the novel coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of respiratory viruses that can cause illness in people and animals. Infections from coronaviruses can vary in severity from the common cold, which causes mild illness, to more severe forms such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV).

The novel (new) coronavirus was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China when a cluster of cases of viral pneumonia with unknown origin were reported. Scientists identified the new virus as genetically related to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and officially named it SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease COVID-19). SARS-CoV-2 is more infectious, but less deadly than SARS-CoV.

There is still a lot we don’t know about SARS-CoV-2 and we are still at the early stages of understanding the full scope of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. How does COVID-19 spread?

The virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is primarily transmitted from person-to-person. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales nearby (within 2 metres / 6 feet), droplets containing the virus can land in another person’s mouth or nose and be inhaled into the lungs. The virus can be transmitted by an infected person who is not showing signs of illness. This is why it’s important to stay 2 metres / 6 feet apart.

Infected droplets can also land on surfaces or objects. A person may contract the virus by touching an infected surface or object and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes.

There is growing evidence that people infected with COVID-19 can transmit the virus to others before symptoms develop (known as pre-symptomatic transmission). It is also possible for people with mild symptoms (such as a mild cough and no other signs of illness) or no signs of illness to transmit the virus.

3. What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The most common symptoms include flu-like symptoms such as fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Symptoms can also include chills and repeated shaking, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and loss of sense of taste or smell. Symptoms typically appear within 2 days to 14 days after exposure.

The majority of cases, around 80%, appear to have mild symptoms, though a small proportion of people develop breathing difficulties, including pneumonia. Those with a weakened immune system, the elderly, and those with a pre-existing condition (specifically high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, cancer or diabetes) appear to be more prone to severe illness.

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience trouble breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, blue lips or face, or confusion.

4. How does COVID-19 compare to the flu?

In short: The viruses have some similarities, but COVID-19 is worse than the flu largely due to its capacity to overwhelm healthcare systems.

Both COVID-19 and the flu (influenza) are viral infections that can spread from person-to-person through droplets, typically from coughing or sneezing. Both viruses can also cause similar symptoms such as fever, cough, and in severe cases, pneumonia. They are also treated through supportive care of symptoms (note: antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, not viral infections).

However, COVID-19 and the flu are caused by different viruses. The flu is caused by different types of influenza viruses, whereas COVID-19 is caused by a new type of coronavirus. Unlike influenza, people have not been previously exposed to COVID-19 infections.

It’s still too early to determine accurate mortality rates for COVID-19, but preliminary estimates suggest it’s between 1-3.4%, whereas the death rate for the flu is 0.1% according to the Centre for Disease Control.

COVID-19 also leads to more severe illness requiring hospitalization than the flu – approximately 19% of COVID-19 cases require hospitalization, compared to 2% for the flu ( based on WHO, CDC, NCBI data). As such, COVID-19 has a higher potential to overwhelm our healthcare systems and severely impact people with pre-existing illnesses, weakened immune systems, and the elderly.

While most people who contract COVID-19 fully recover through supportive care, hospitals and medical facilities will not able to treat all severe cases requiring hospitalization if the virus is allowed to spread unabated in our communities. This is why it’s so important to follow the guidance of your government and health authority regarding physical distancing and restrictions on travel and gatherings.

5. Where have cases been reported?

Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in many countries around the world. You can see a full list of affected countries here. For real-time updates on active case numbers and recovered cases, see: Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases.

6. Is there a medicine that can prevent or cure COVID-19?

At this time there is no vaccine, medicine or therapy that can prevent or cure COVID-19. However, there are multiple efforts underway to develop a vaccine for prevention and medication treatment.

The majority of people who contract COVID-19 recover with supportive care of symptoms. Some people with serious illness require hospitalization.

Note: Be cautious of products or vaccines claiming to cure or treat COVID-19 – numerous scams regarding COVID-19 vaccines and medications have been reported. There are also many myths and misconceptions about COVID-19 and its transmission being circulated online. Make sure you are getting your information from reliable sources (such as your government and health authority). You can read more about COVID-19 myths here.

7. What can I do to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in my community?

All of us have a role to play in this pandemic. Governments and health authorities around the world are encouraging people to stay home and practice physical distancing as a way to flatten the epidemic curve. Flattening the curve refers to preventing a sharp peak in infections so as not to overwhelm healthcare systems and dedicate more time to developing treatments or vaccines.

Public health measures such as physical distancing help flatten the curve because they reduce the amount of contact people have with each other, thereby slowing down the spread of highly contagious diseases. Physical distancing can be particularly effective for reducing the spread of COVID-19 because it is primarily transmitted through close contact, specifically direct contact with infected droplets when someone coughs or sneezes.

It’s also important to follow basic hygiene measures to avoid spreading COVID-19 and other viruses. These include:

8. What is physical distancing?

Physical distancing (otherwise known as social distancing) is a way to reduce the spread of contagious diseases by increasing distance between people. It is an effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, which is primarily transmitted through close contact.

To practice physical distancing:

9. How do I self-isolate?

If you suspect you have been exposed to COVID-19 (e.g. you had contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19) or recently returned from travelling, you may be advised by your local health authority to self-isolate and monitor yourself for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days.

Self-isolation may also be recommended for people who are elderly or immunocompromised. Refer to your health authority for guidance on when to self-isolate.

Self-isolation involves:

If it is confirmed that you have COVID-19, your healthcare practitioner and health authority will advise you on additional self-isolation measures. People who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are advised to follow the self-isolation measures outlined above and wear a mask to reduce the risk of transmitting the risk of transmitting the virus to others. Learn more about self-isolation here.

10. Should I wear a mask to protect myself against COVID-19?

Be advised: There is currently a worldwide shortage of masks. To ensure healthcare providers and those directly affected by COVID-19 have appropriate protection, please do not waste medical masks and N95 masks.

Follow the advice of your local health authority and government regarding mask use – non-medical masks (such as a cloth face covering) may be recommended or required in public spaces.

Wearing a mask is an additional step you can take to protect others. Wearing a non-medical mask will not protect the wearer from contracting COVID-19, but it can reduce the chance of your respiratory droplets coming into contact with others. Wearing a mask is recommended when physical distancing is not possible, such as caring for another sick person, or when it’s more difficult to practice physical distancing, such in grocery stores or on public transit.

When wearing a mask, it’s important to continue to prioritize physical distancing and hand-hygiene measures.

There is evidence that people infected with COVID-19 can transmit the virus before symptoms develop (also known as pre-symptomatic transmission). It may also be possible for people to transmit the virus without developing symptoms (also known as asymptomatic transmission). This is why it’s important for all of us to follow the advice of our local health authority and government by practicing physical distancing, hand-hygiene, and – where required or recommended – wearing a non-medical mask.

Learn how to make your own home-made non-medical mask. You can also learn about how to safely put on and take off a mask, and clean it here.

11. How can I take care of my mental health during the pandemic?

This pandemic is an unprecedented situation and it’s understandable to experience feelings of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. As we navigate this together and settle into new routines, it’s important to remember to take care of your mental health and wellbeing. Here are some resources that can help:

IAMAT's Coronavirus COVID-19 resources:

Coronavirus COIVD-19

Travel and COVID-19 (infographic)

COVID-19: Essential Reading (blog)

COVID-19: Travel restrictions, returning travellers, and advice for travellers abroad (blog)

The disease on every traveller's mind: COVID-19 (blog)

Information last reviewed: August 18, 2020

Travel Health Journal