21 March, 2020
By now, I suspect you know the drill for protecting yourself and your loved ones against this notorious new thing on the news called coronavirus. You’re washing your hands dozens of times per day. You’re keeping an overly polite distance from strangers and acquaintances. You’re making sure that your food and drinks are as uncontaminated as possible.
The more diligent among us might already be practising social-distancing in our homes, workplaces, and daily routines, even though it means missing out on much-anticipated activities and events. You’ve foraged through shops for the last few precious cans of beans, bags of rice, and rolls of toilet paper — and wondered why on earth the latter is even out of stock in the first place.
And if you’ve been following the relentless media stream, you’ll have noticed many countries around the world implementing strict border control and travel bans. It’s a sad development, no doubt for the greater good of the population. Still, to let go of plans for that gap-year world tour, that dream wedding in Indonesia, or visiting your grandchildren over Spring Break can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Maybe you got lucky, and have returned home from a trip just as bans were being enforced. Welcome back to the safety of home soil, with your health intact and a good dose of post-holiday afterglow.
But perhaps you haven’t considered whether your travel bag could have brought the virus back with you?
Even if you didn’t encounter any sick people, there’s a chance your luggage could be compromised.
The good news is the chance is slight. However, it’s worth unpacking (pardon the pun) just what kind of bug we’re dealing with in order to understand why.
According to the World Health Organisation, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that range from the common cold to more serious diseases. These can affect both humans and animals. This particular strain (COVID-19) originated at the end of 2019 in China’s Hubei province, and theories on the web blame anything from a seafood market to a laboratory linked with biological weaponry. (Nothing has yet been proven.)
While global outbreaks from this viral family are not new, the rates of spread and fatality are. Coronavirus appears highly contagious, yet symptoms present mildly at first. This leads people to infect others before they’ve realised they’re sick.
Once contracted, what seems like a mere cold can develop quickly into pneumonia, kidney failure, a buildup of lung fluid, and — in cases — death.
While there isn’t yet evidence to suggest children are more prone to infection, early studies implicate men as having a higher risk rate than women.
Because COVID-19 is novel, scientists are still determining its precise hallmarks. They’re basing projections on that of similar viruses, such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details that spread from person-to-person occurs in respiratory droplets at a close distance of around 1.5 metres (six feet).
Transmission from people to surfaces has not yet been documented. What evidence we have suggests novel coronavirus “may remain viable from hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials.” Its viability could be influenced by several factors, such as the kind of material, air temperature, and humidity.
Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic, quoted in the Washington Post that a series of specific events must occur to contract coronavirus from one’s luggage.
“You’d literally have to have someone sneeze all over it, get mucus on it and then, within minutes to a few hours, you would have to touch your bag and then your face,” Poland says.
Still, it’s understandable you may be concerned. Media coverage of COVID-19 has far outstripped that of any other pandemic, and recent enforcement of travel bans and self-isolation further compound fear amongst the public.
What’s more, many cases of the virus infecting new territory have been attributed to travellers returning home. So while we shouldn’t exacerbate panic, it’s vital we take whatever small precautions we can to prevent spread.
Read on to learn more about how specific materials and air conditions should impact your post-travel cleansing plan.
As mentioned above, global health experts are modelling preventative measures against previous viral outbreaks, such as MERS and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).
Ann R. Falsey, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Rochester, estimates coronavirus might survive for two to four days on hard surfaces, less than one day on fabrics, and 30-60 minutes on hands.
Hard, non-porous materials like metal, glass, and plastic are more hospitable to viruses than softer ones. For example, let’s say your travel bag is like many on the market: a wheeled canvas case with an adjustable aluminium handle. If the bug has somehow made its way onto your luggage, it’s likely to live longer on the metal handle than the fabric.
When travellers think of bugs in their bags, they might flinch at memories of catching bed bugs in a hostel and having to go into full assault mode to get rid of them. Rest assured, you’ll not need to burn your entire suitcase and everything in it.
Experts suggest several relatively easy (albeit time-consuming) tactics for dealing with compromised baggage.
Think of baggage handlers, shuttle drivers, and porters — anybody involved in your bags’ passage from airport to accommodation. Poland says to wipe the affected areas with antibacterial towelettes.
Bear in mind the difference between cleaning (wiping germs from surfaces, rather than killing them) and disinfecting (involving the use of germ-destroying chemicals that can damage fabric). Also keep in mind that your bags may become discoloured or stained in the process.
Extra heat and time in the dryer should inactivate viral droplets. Don’t shake clothes from your laundry bag and lazily dump them on the floor in a pile; doing so may release viral particles into the air.
Experts say using a regular washing machine would kill the virus, potentially even if you were to combine sick and healthy people’s items in one load (though wash separately if you can). If you can’t access laundry facilities, hand-wash garments at home in water that’s above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees celsius).
Also, you’ve likely been dragging your travel bag across dirty floors and carpets, so give the wheels a good wipe down for good measure.
This is a lot to process; I get it.
You might be shaking your head and thinking, “Guys, thanks, but isn’t this all a bit much? I’m young and in good shape. I have an immune system like an ox and rarely get sick. And anyway, experts will intervene and fix everything before we know it. I think I’ll just wash my hands a little more often and take my chances.”
The fact is, countries like the US and Italy have been remarkably slow to introduce precautionary measures, and are paying a steep price. After initially refusing to test potentially infected people, cases of coronavirus in America have surpassed 10,000 and span every state. And within the space of a couple of weeks, Italy’s death toll climbed higher than China’s, jumping by 427 in one day.
Moreover, current projections indicate between 40-70% of the general public will be affected; mildly in most cases, but with the possibility of infecting those at greater risk.
It’s clear we need to take responsibility (literally) into our own hands.
So even if you’re the most diligent self-hygienist who remembers to wipe down your airplane seat, tray table, overhead buttons, and seatbelt with an antibacterial cloth, it’s still a good idea to take additional post-travel measures for virus protection.
Paul Pottinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Washington, tells people in his interview with The Points Guy to start by (surprise, surprise) cleaning their hands. Germs that reside on anything you touch between the airport and your house — the overhead compartment, baggage claim carousel, the handles of your suitcase, the door of your taxi or Uber — “may for some time be a potential threat to your health,” he says.
This also goes for anything that touched the floor beneath the seat in front of you. “No matter what they say, the floors on the planes are certainly not clean,” says Pottinger. “So it’s reasonable to clean those items.”
Even the jacket you had wrapped around your waist? An article in the Huffington Post details how articles of clothing can hold respiratory droplets, which dry out over time and inactivate the virus. But remember, we don’t yet have concrete data on COVID-19’s shelf life. Scientists are learning more about this disease every day.
“We know that the droplet can dry out under some conditions, which may be faster with natural fibers,” says Carol Winner, a public health specialist in her interview with HuffPost. “We’re hearing that heat and humidity can affect viral survival on surfaces, but remember, it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Australia, and Tom Hanks still got it.”
We’ve already gone over how hard surfaces can create longer-lasting environments for coronavirus than softer materials. Robert Amler, Dean of Health Sciences at New York Medical College, says the duration of the virus depends on the porousness of the fabric it touches.
“Some researchers believe the fibers in porous material catch the virus particles, dry them out, and break them apart,” Amler says. “Smooth surfaces like leather and vinyl can be wiped clean.”
It’s also been suggested polyester and other spandex-like materials may hold germs longer than breathable fabrics, like cotton; so be sure to wash leggings, underwear, and dresses carefully. Finally, initial studies on COVID-19 indicate the virus’ ability to stay on cardboard, steel, copper, and plastic surfaces. Note how buttons, zippers, and other clothing hardware can consist of these materials.
Of course, while we’re talking about cleansing garments of a contagious disease, you might conversely be picturing yourself wearing something resembling a hazmat suit.
Just how careful do you have to be in your cleaning habits?
The CDC provides more specific instructions for germ removal:
It’s easy to feel despairing in this current predicament — to put it mildly. In troubled times, those of us with itchy feet are tempted to drag our travel bags right out of storage and jump on the next flight to anywhere. Sadly, that just won’t be possible for the indefinite future.
Most countries you can think of have enforced some form of travel ban, ranging in severity from conducting medical examinations at airports to completely suspending domestic and international flights. People with pre-existing travel plans have either had to postpone or cancel bookings, often without refunds.
The fact is, it’s impossible to travel while adhering to social distancing guidelines. In terms of how long those guidelines will be in place, experts’ collective answer is: “It depends.” They’re accounting for factors like when COVID-19’s peak will strike individual countries; data that’s currently unattainable due to limited testing facilities.
Even after the coronavirus peak has subsided, we just can’t know for sure what further measures and actions need to be taken against it. It might be necessary, like in the wake of 9/11, to adjust security checks at airports to include medical examinations.
Some countries may choose to permanently close their borders to citizens of particular nationalities. This pandemic is unprecedented, and outcomes are merely guesswork for the time being.
Ultimately, how long it takes for countries to flatten epidemiological curves, and therefore emerge sooner from this catastrophe, will depend on each of us: how willing we are to temporarily sacrifice individual comforts and conveniences for the sake of the greater population.
While the outlook seems grim right now, it’s important to remember the worst will eventually come to pass. We have an opportunity to collectively acknowledge mistakes of the past, and then look to the future for solutions. Which, of course, includes planning for the next sorely anticipated round of travel!
One critical thing to keep in mind moving forward is preventative health; preparing your body so that it has the best possible chance of withstanding the next outbreak. As we’ve learned, it’s difficult and stressful to cleanse your travel bags when you return home. Why not just maximise your chances of never harboring the bugs in the first place?
Aside from social distancing and personal hygiene guidelines already in place, there are many things you can do to pandemic-proof your body and mind. None are silver bullets, but together, they’re a powerful force.
Many suspect this already; you might have noticed stocks of turmeric, ginger, vitamin C powder and mushroom tonics (among other things) flying off the shelves once a pandemic was declared.
The truth is, it’s not enough to simply pop pills for a couple of days or drink your body weight in orange juice. Fortifying your immune system starts long before germs start firing. Dr. Mark Hyman, a physician and public health educator, suggests many actions we can take right now to prevent all kinds of chronic diseases, coronavirus included, and be plane-ready before we even board.
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