Why I’m Starting To Worry About Coronavirus, And What I’m Doing About It

Coronovirus is starting to concern me more than it did two weeks ago, and not just because looking at the market I’m starting to break out my old Great Recession jokes (“Why is the financial crisis worse than divorce? You lose half your assets and you’re still married…”). I even had my first coronovirus dream last night, where I was laying over at an LAX airport hotel and realized that my wife and I were headed off on a trip to Beijing and Shanghai.

Of over 81,000 confirmed cases 96% are still in mainland China but it’s spread – the largest spread so far to South Korea, but also Italy, Japan and Iran. Here’s a map of current COVID-19 cases.

The good news is that over 30,000 confirmed cases have recovered. The bad news is that over 2700 have died so far. The most vulnerable are those with pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable. I have a daughter who is less than one and a half.

The majority of cases in the U.S. are off the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Infected passengers went into quarantine. Let’s assume that was done effectively. However there’s the Korean Air flight attendant who tested positive, and did an LAX roundtrip a week and a half ago. The odds they were a super spreader is low, but it’s certainly imaginable that they infected passengers. Those passengers went home, some of them came back to the airport and flew again. They may have infected airport employees and flight attendants, who continued to interact with passengers and fly.

Even if that flight attendant didn’t cause much of a spread there will be others. It’s possible that measures to cordon off the U.S. from coronovirus arrivals slows down the spread but that the spread happens inevitably. A flight attendant off of American’s Dallas Fort-Worth – Seoul flight picks it up on their layover, for instance, despite precautions and brings it back to the states without realizing it. Or a Cathay Pacific flight crewmember brings it with them. Maybe they’re sick and staying at a JFK airport hotel with poor plumbing that causes the virus to spread to other rooms, to hotel workers, and so on.

I don’t want to overstate the risk. Instead what i’m thinking about is long tail risk and I’m more incentivized than average to guard against it because of my young daughter.

It means I’m already considering cancelling a Europe trip in the spring (I’ll wait and see how the virus develops). It means I’m more conscious about washing my hands regularly and thoroughly, especially during travels. And it means being prepared to work from home for an extended period of time, ideally without going out for supplies.

  • Asking what would it mean to be self-quarantined for 2-4 weeks?
  • What supplies do I need, from extra water to non-perishable food?
  • What would contingencies look like in the event of loss of basic municipal services like power and potable water?

I’m not locking myself in a cabin in the woods. I’m doing the disaster-preparedness thinking that I should have done already, unrelated to coronovirus.

The closest analogue in my lifetime may have been Y2K preparedness, and that turned out to be a nothingburger. It was sure eerie to be flying on January 1, 2000 on board a nearly empty United Airlines Boeing 777 from Los Angeles to Washington Dulles. The plane didn’t just operate, it operated on time, and everything else worked fine too.

However the thing about disasters is they aren’t exactly predictable in terms of how or when they manifest, and thinking through preparedness can make good sense even if this turns out to be a non-event in the middle of the U.S. where I live.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Pingbacks

Comments

  1. We ( me and wife and our 5 years old kid) have booked flights to Asia, KUL from ORD in August. I booked the flights on UA a month ago. I am now wondering what I should do! Finish the hotel bookings or cancel the flights with UA. My return is from Sri Lanka to ORD . We planned a trip to Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Even if it remains like today, we will be subjected to secondary screening, questionings at airport in Asia and specially when we return to USA right?

    Cancel or wait a month or two?

  2. @jim – why cancel now versus this summer? I wouldn’t necessarily make non-refundable hotel bookings, but I don’t love those *anyway*. Continue your life, keep planning it, and adjust as needed.

  3. Thanks Gary! I will continue with refundable hotel room booking and keep my ears to the news and updates. Hope UA refunds my miles and the taxes without fee IF we have to cancel the flights because of the Coronavirus situation getting worse here or in Asia, malaysia.

  4. I had a similar experience when there was SARS. I had to fly to the U.S.A. via Cathay Pacific to attend my brother’s wedding in California. That was in 2003. My two sons were still 10 years and 8 years of age. I brought and wore an N95 mask the whole flight. I rode economy and did not take my mask off or eat and drink water for the whole trip. The cabin crew was obviously worried and kept asking me if I was all right.
    Since I was much younger then I was able to handle this ordeal.
    Fast forward to 2020 -17 years later. I have an upcoming trip to Europe end March with my wife and son . Circumstances are obviously different now. Its now biz class in Singapore Airlines.
    I wonder if draconian steps like this might still be called for or maybe switching out to the more practical surgical mask might help as well as what you have advised in this column on washing hands, etc.

  5. My SO & I are headed to Perth, Australia for a duo of work conference and vacation.
    We originally booked ORD-HKG-PER, on Cathay Pacific. A *stellar* deal with AS miles, and flying so.super.comfy. Her ticket is paid for by the conference so even better. We booked this last summer, as soon as the event was known about. Ergo, great availability in CX J & F.

    Fast forward to a few week ago… assessing that Hong Kong connection, and fellow passengers (to and from). We are two 40-somethings in good health. We are not the *at risk* demographic.
    But, between the two of us we have several kids, and don’t want to bring risk home to them.

    Are we still going to Perth? Yes. But we canceled the CX itinerary and re-booked on United, routing through LAX and avoiding Asia completely. Coach.. omg. (We did purchase Econ-plus seats for TransPac legs, and also submitted for Miles+cash upgrade to Polaris Biz… we’ll see if it comes through).

    Life goes on, and there is ALWAYS risk… mitigate what you can. Don’t go out of your way seeking it. But keep living it. More people die of the regular flu every year… year after year.

  6. Finally someone is addressing this scary development. I too, have a Europe tour for all of June and I am concerned that I may have to cancel. I managed to get on the Delta A350-900 business by luck or not (they switched planes on me from an A330-300)?

    I heard today that Europe is already planning on a pandemic and San Francisco declared an emergency, even though there are no cases there (just a matter of time).

    There are hotel in Spain, Germany, and forgot where else in Europe where a hotel in under quarantine be they found someone with the virus.

    I can’t imagine getting quarantine in Europe (place, tour bus, hotel) for 14 days and then sent by to the US in the ‘Plane from Hell’ and go through another 14 days of quarantine.

  7. Perspective is important. 2,700 people have died from COVID19 this year. This flu season over 10,000 people have died just in the US. Wash your hands and take reasonable precautions, but overreactions and panic are far too easy in these situations.

  8. I can appreciate that having a young child in the house can change your perspective. That said, the CDC data show deaths from regular flu (depending on the year) ranging from 12 – 61k annually in the US alone since 2010. My family and I just returned from a week in Tokyo and our decision was to keep our trip on the books but exercise a bit of caution with extra hand washing and hygiene. My opinion is that the cable news fear-mongering machine is cranking this up to an 11 when it should maybe be a 3 or 4.

  9. Two things:
    1) Agree with the comment on children/young being lower risk, both for transmission and for severity. Same phenomenon was seen with SARS and MERS which were also coronaviruses.
    2) Korean Air FA is particularly damaging / risky because she basically did an intensive tour of very high traffic parts of koreatown in LA, two big popular restaurants, an aggressive communal drinking place, and a classic hangover soup joint.

    As a dad to two kids (ages 3 and 1) who lives in Koreatown LA, I’m definitely expecting to see a flare in the next two weeks. And I’m keeping my early April Europe trip on the books until political pressures say we can’t travel.

  10. Some good points, but I also know that you have a rather powerful fear that there’s semen in your hotel shampoo.

  11. Gary first post here and love your insights. I understand your concern. Me too I have a trip this coming May and July to Taiwan and Manila and I am playing waiting game, Just an observation with the map you posted I noticed that the two hot weather continents are not affected with Corona Virus…I hope warm weather will end this virus.

  12. I just cancelled a two week trip to Rome starting a week from today. Not because I was worried about us, we’re healthy, likely the flu would not be very serious if we were to catch it. And how I would love to walk through the museums and the Parthenon without crowds. However, all you have to do is to persuse the relevant wikipedia page which lists government reactions (Austria shut down cross border train traffic for a while, for instance), and imagine what the current US government is going to do if those daily case rates don’t soon decrease. Even a 25% chance of a two week quarantine upon return is too much.

  13. Some kind of researcher estimated that eventually two-thirds or more of the world population will be hit by the Wuhan coronavirus.

    Italy, Iran and South Korea now have so many cases that I can only expect that it’s a matter of time until enough people get it that it becomes much like the more common flus: we get hit, rest up and recover without the world freaking out about it anymore.

  14. The largest data set to date, from China’s CDC of some 44,000 cases demonstrates that the young are much better off than the elderly. If you are above the age of 70 though, or have an underlying health condition, you should definitely reconsider near future travel plans.

  15. 80% have very mild symptoms. I am starting a new job that will entail several mid-continental trips per month. Even if it were confirmed that I was on a plane with an infected passenger I will not self quarantine or restrict my movement in anyway. I have started practicing good hand washing but apart from that nothing else will change.

  16. It will get worse not better and airlines might not be stopped from flying until the entire world is infected.
    The sad part is between 2 to 4 per 100 of our friends and family will be dead within a year at the current mortality rate.
    Who know what the US count is as there is limited testing available to confirm this virus.
    If they couldn’t contain it in authoritarian China there is little hope the free world will do any better.
    BTW the airlines are not allowing any domestic cancellations yet. It gives them a chance to still have a profitable first quarter and keep the economy “the best it’s ever been”
    God help us ignorant fools

  17. It will get worse not better and airlines might not be stopped from flying until the entire world is infected.
    The sad part is between 2 to 4 per 100 of our friends and family will be dead within a year at the current mortality rate.
    Who knows what the US count is as there is limited testing available to confirm this virus.
    If they couldn’t contain it in authoritarian China there is little hope the free world will do any better.
    BTW the airlines are not allowing any domestic cancellations yet. It gives them a chance to still have a profitable first quarter and keep the economy “the best it’s ever been”
    God help us ignorant fools

  18. The most rapid wide transmission is like norovirus – fecal that gets into food handling on the cruise ships. Doubt the ship transmission was respiratory.

    I wouldn’t be so concerned about trips to the grocery store.

    Prepared by strangers hand food – maybe dial that back some.

    Respiratory – seems extended contact with an individual is bigger than a stray sneeze across the room.

  19. Kudos to you Gary. The Paranoid can be wrong 1000 times, but the one time they’re right…

    I’m surprised that your savvy readers would simultaneously 1) Believe the gauzy reports of casualties/fatalities reported by Chinese authorities while 2) not believing the non-panic inducing reporting on this from american media channels.

    The fatality rate from Covid19 has already been documented at 20x ‘the flu’. China and South Korea would not shut down their cities and economies for ‘the flu’. China just seized 3M’s mask processing plant. They’re killing their livestock. They have stopped manufacturing.

    And, the Airlines would not kill their most lucrative routes for ‘the flu’.

    Of course, DYOR, but it shouldn’t take too long for anyone who is remotely curious to come the conclusion that this is a more virulent bug than what we all are used to during ‘cold and flu season’.

    If you are a skeptic fine. But if you are silly enough to think that this is a conspiracy by ‘liberals to destroy Trump’ or ‘cable TV’, please immediately quarantine yourself so your ignorance isn’t spread any further.

  20. There are a few things that make COVID-19 scary.

    1) Americans lack health insurance. Then there is a sizeable population that has it; but can’t afford to pay the costs associated with verifying they are COVID-19 free.
    2) A large population of workers are working paycheck to paycheck in low end service jobs. These same employees make your drink or food at the airport, just as an example. This expands on the issue that is access to health care and financial security.
    3) Americans have become unhygienic. Have you went to a movie theater or sports game lately and watched how many people wash their hands? One of the most basic concepts out there, and Americans have come to ignore this.
    4) Pursuit of profits pt1. Inventory ties up capital. There are a large population (definitely readers of blogs like this….) of professionals who are solely employed to help improve capital efficiency, getting lean, and reducing inventory levels to…
    5) Pursuit of profits pt2. Just in time inventory. Everything is just in time. From tamiflu supplies to basic household necessities. Everyone has become accustomed to just in time logistics which allow companies to reduce their inventory.
    6) Pursuit of profits pt3. No redundancy. Highly available redundant operations are almost exclusively a concept in the tech sector. Throughout the workforce we have subcontracted out, reduced headcount, and reduced overlapping job functions to the point where many responsibilities are handed by one lone individual. It isn’t too hard to paint a picture where essential services are no longer functioning due to illness.

    We are, in a way, our own worst enemy. We create an extremely fragile environment that requires perfection. Combine this with the fact that those at the low end of the economic spectrum can’t afford to see a doctor, or afford unpaid time off to quarantine themselves…….and it is scary. Then you just look at how Americans can’t even bother to wash their hands after the restroom and you basically lose hope in our ability to stop this.

    Sick people are going to go to work and make your dinner…..they can’t afford not to.

    Not to mention the segment of the population who think they know it all because they heard coronavirus is common in the USA, and that we have no issues dealing with it. Meanwhile they are ignorant to the fact that coronavirus is a large family of viruses, that range from the low-risk strains that have made it to the USA in years past; to the more serious SARS/MERS variety, to the high-risk strains like COVID-19.

    What I fear is the president. His moral compass is not exactly the brightest. His ideas are, well, archaic…….dated. Or to put it more bluntly; if he can’t beat it with a baseball bat, he doesn’t know how to solve it. This isn’t the time or place for authoritarian military force with dim-witted ideas. None of us can say with confidence that the president will make the right choice in this situation. Like I said – if he can’t beat it with a baseball bat, he is out of ideas.

    Those who downplay the significance of this event are unfortunately not equipped with the right information. They more than likely fall into the camp where they think this is a low risk strain of Coronavirus, and weren’t even aware that the the Coronavirus is family of viruses, ranging from low-risk to high-risk.

    If all of the above weren’t soo true; I would be less worried. How can we have confidence in our peers to do the right thing? They can’t even wash their hands after the bathroom…….

    It sucks. I am not happy to write this out, but I am glad that you are raising awareness about this.

  21. I think this will all get much worse before it gets better however by Summer it will be mostly gone or in remission until Fall, like the Spanish Flu of 1918 did. The warm weather in the Northern Hemisphere will keep it at bay and allow most people to recover more quickly for awhile. So, in other words, your Summer vacations shouldn’t be a major concern but if you book a cruise in say November I’d get a balcony cabin in case you get hit with a quarantine.

  22. OMG coronavirus. Just another flu. Its gonna run its course. More people will die from this overreaction than the virus itself. That’s a fact.

  23. Taking some precautions is a very sensible approach. These vary by family, and I’m sure you’ll be stockpiling diapers. Where I disagree with you is the loss of water and power. These are essential services and if they go out for more than a brief period, we’re pretty much in the zombie apocalypse. I don’t have a lot of faith in the government, but I find it unlikely that the state and federal governments would allow basic survival services to lapse.

  24. @Christian – 40% of Puerto Rico was without power over 100 days two years ago, but leaving that aside when there are major outages it’s not *that* uncommon for small areas to be without power for more than 10 days [of course in that case i’d normally go to a hotel, if it’s the result of a natural disaster and services are back up elsewhere]

  25. Two points are enough to quash the “duh the flu is worse people”:

    — Educated estimates place the world infection rate at 40 to 70 percent. Even a fraction of this is huge. That’s reason 1 why it’s different than the flu.

    — death rates are 2%, many times more than the flu. Even half this is huge. That’s reason 2 why it’s different than the flu.

    This is not the flu. It’s worse. FFS.

    Preventing many deaths will require disruption. The issue everyone SHOULD be considering is the necessary disruption. You might not die, but you’re about to be inconvenienced whether you like it or not. Nobody here is a top tier disease expert and nobody here makes the call on whether your kids school is closed.

  26. This is absolutely NOT a case of fear-mongering driven by cable news: if anything they have been understating the risk. It’s not helpful that so many ill-informed observers continue to make meaningless comparisons with seasonal flu: this disease has 20 times the mortality rate, appears to be more contagious, and there is no vaccine ( or treatment, other than forms of life support). Comparisons with Spanish Flu , 1918-1920 are more apt.
    This has the potential to do severe damage to the world economy..
    Gary is correct to be treating it very seriously; this is not the time for a cavalier approach and/or false bravado.

  27. I’ve always taken the flu threat very seriously, so I don’t have an additional level of concern for health.

    But the threat of quarantine or travel embargo s what con.

  28. @MNbska
    Indeed. But in fact the mortality rate ( deaths as % of total resolved cases ..is 8%). Of the clinically proven cases unresolved, the serious/critical rate is 18%.
    Of course, those figures are skewed by the fact there are likely to be many, many cases of exposure untested/ unconfirmed, as the symptoms were mild and unreported.

  29. Well the disease is a little bit scary but what’s much more scary is the likely stupid decisions to be made by governments, which will disrupt supply chains and possibly leave you quarantined somewhere awful.

    Considering the quality of today’s politicians …there’s no longer any independent leadership in Western governments, every politician only does exactly what his lobbyists are paying him to do.

    Best to be prepared for some ill thought out disastrous government edicts and shortages on the shelves

  30. @Gary – To be fair, Puerto Rico had been hit by a killer hurricane and it’s an island, so a similar situation of 100 days of no power or water seems extraordinarily unlikely. If a natural disaster strikes in tandem with the virus though, I agree it may well turn ugly.

  31. Find the longest reply and you know it’s somebody pushing their political agendas. That’s how I know which ones(s) to skip and save the time.

  32. @Gary I find myself in a similar quandry. Our family has a trip to Singapore second week of April.

    I booked 2 TIX for my wife and I (using Singapore miles direct). I called SA and, no, they won’t waive fees to redeposit until there is a WHO pandemic declared. But the real issue is the tickets through Chase ultimate rewards for the kids (all in their 20s). I called Chase and they said, “these are non refundable so you will lose all $$$” meaning about $4500 in value based on 1.5x points. Of course I could pay $200 each in change fees, but I’d rather wait until there is a waiver. The final straw was calling Airbnb – they won’t waive my 50% deposit until “WHO declares a pandemic.”

    At this point we are leaving things as-is, as I can’t cancel anything without losing lots of $$$ but welcome any advice.

  33. My question is: what will happen if the virus becomes epidemic and hospitals in the US (and elsewhere) cannot handle the number of sick people?

  34. People need to stop downplaying this by saying that the seasonal flu kills more people therefore this is no big deal. About 25 million people get the flu each year in the US with a mortality rate of about 0.1% so about 25000 deaths. Talking averages here. Early estimates of COVID-19 mortality rate have been about 2%. So if 25 million people got it we would be looking at about 500,000 deaths. Plus it is much more infectious than the flu. R0 estimates for this new virus range from about 2-3. That means an infected person will on average infect about 2-3 people. Seasonal flu has a R0 value of maybe 1.25. By way of comparison the Spanish flu of 1918 has an estimated similar value to COVID-19. The mortality rate is negligible until you hit about 50 and it is much much higher for people over 80. Children are being spared for the most part.

    Now keep in mind, these are estimates and a lot of that is relying on data that has come out of China and their numbers are questionable. Politics and lack of resources(available test kits, availability of medical supplies and resources,etc) are distorting these numbers. There are probably a lot of mild to moderate undiagnosed cases and a lot of deaths that are being wrongly attributed to other causes.

    There are a lot of unknowns but ask yourself this, why would China cripple its economy and forcibly quarantine 10s of millions of people for something that some people say is supposedly not as bad as the seasonal flu?

    I am not saying it is the end times. It will burn itself out but it is foolish to dismiss it out of hand as no big deal. Hopefully warmer weather will help squelch it like it does the flu. Maybe it will come back next winter or maybe just disappear or fade into the background like SARS or MERS or Zika.

  35. For anyone thinking of travel anywhere outside the US this is a good time to pick up travel medical insurance if you don’t already have it!

  36. The thing I think about is the 15% death rate in elderly folks. Say you pick up the virus in your travels and don’t have severe symptoms but unwittingly pass it to your 78 yr old parents/grandparents. It would be tough to live with that if they ended up not surviving from it and it was your fault because you took an unnecessary trip.

  37. Son has trip planned to Milan in 6 weeks. Delta is allowing cancel now but only for flights through March 15th, his trip is near end of April (and on United, not Delta). Trouble is, he works in a Nursing home. So risk is he could bring it back to the very vulnerable. Heck, Disney is telling their workers who visited Italy to stay home at the moment.

    I think it best, if United puts out an extended cancel window, that he cancels or at least postpones. It would be nicer weather in Northern Italy a couple of months later anyway.

  38. There is definitely reason for individuals to be concerned by the coronavirus, but there’s also reason for individuals to know that they are GROSSLY OVERESTIMATING the risk of the virus. That’s just what people do: as a species, we are horrific at risk assessment, and scary viruses that we can’t see trigger all our irrational emotions. Right now, there are about 50 people in the entire world outside of China — out of more than 6 BILLION people — who have died of this virus. That’s a mind-boggling small number, and the death rate isn’t really increasing. Worldometer tells me that, so far, one person has died today. So take a deep breath and relax. Not that you likely will, of course, because you are human and programmed to worry.

  39. @Choptsticks
    I don’t see any gross overestimating of risk, but rather people taking sensible precautions to minimize risk. With the exception of avoiding travel to ‘hotspots’, as any reasonable person would do without question, they include: wearing a mask ( at least in places like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Tokyo)…even though their effectiveness might be questionable; avoiding queues/ crowded public places in those same cities, scrupulous hand hygiene regimes, using alcohol based products to disinfect public spaces ( tray tables, seats, lavatory doors and taps), avoiding buffets.These things are not onerous/rocket science, and while it’s still going to be largely the luck of the draw in respect of potential exposure, I prefer to reduce risk if I’m going to be in places with significant levels of infection. It’s not seclusion in a log cabin, merely common sense.

  40. The LA Times article about the Korean Air flight attendant scared the crap out of me!
    I was in Thailand, and changed my return flight from Cathay via Hong Kong on Feb. 18 to Korean Air via ICN on Feb. 18 (late night departure connecting to ICN-LAX on Feb. 19).
    On the 17th, I decided the 8-hour layover at ICN would suck, and changed to a Feb. 19 early a.m. departure, connecting to ICN-LAX later that day.
    My original Korean flight was KE017 on Fen. 19….THE SAME ONE that the infected Korean Air flight attendant reportedly serviced!
    Apparently, my change may have saved me more than an 8-hour layover at ICN! WHEW!

    FWIW, I came back from Thailand via South Korea, and I was asked ZERO questions about possible CV symptoms at immigration or customs. I have GE, so immigration never says anything — they just look at the slip — but the customs agent asked me 3 questions, none of which had ANYTHING to do with CV (where had I been; why; what is my occupation). Since she would have been going through about 5 hours before me, I’m guessing that the KE flight attendant similarly was asked nothing when she went through (although it appears she was not symptomatic at the time).

    One bit of good news is that the flgiht attendants on Korean Air WERE wearing masks.

  41. @Gary – am I the only one highly concerned for Austin where in 2 weeks people from all over the world will show up for SXSW and significantly increase the risk of spreading this disease..?!?
    How is networking supposed to be done worrying about handshakes

  42. We are seeing even ski trips to Austria being cancelled because neighboring Italy has a big outbreak of this in Northern Italy. Not so unexpectedly, the racist political elements in Northern Italy and Austria too now want to blame North African, SubSaharan African and SW Asian countries for this Wuhan coronavirus outbreak even as refugees from those countries aren’t the main source of this breakout in the industrial belt of Italy.

  43. Michael Que: “or maybe switching out to the more practical surgical mask ”

    If you are worried about a virus and don’t want to use the N95, then don’t bother with a mask at all. Surgical masks do NOT stop viruses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.