A Tale of Traveling in the Time of COVID-19

“Have you traveled to Italy or China?”

Swiss Immigration Officer

Let’s be frank. It isn’t the best time to travel, even domestically, let alone to China or Italy or Europe generally. While you may be able to reach your destination, you may find nothing open and you may or may not be able to get home. You could be placed into mandatory quarantine or told to isolate yourself for 14 days (likelihood is high); and you could be exposed, infected, or worse infect others. Even if quarantine is not deemed mandatory, I urge anyone that has traveled anywhere and has the option to do so voluntarily. If feasible, it might be a good time to look into delaying or canceling upcoming travel. Viruses after all know no borders.

That being said, I know a fair number of people are still trying to get home, or are required to travel for work or other reasons, which is why I’m writing up our experiences abroad, and some of the precautionary measures we tried to take to minimize exposure.

We left for Switzerland at the beginning of March. At the time, Italy was just starting feel the brunt of the virus, but the rest of Europe had only seen a few cases pop up, mostly related to travel to/from Italy or China. The day we left, Switzerland had fewer cases than California, and there were no travel restrictions or warnings.

Zurich

Only a small sign and a bottle of hand sanitizer upon arrival in Zurich.

Upon arrival in Zurich, it was business as usual. The Swiss immigration officer asked how long and where we’d be staying, and told us to enjoy our ski vacation, but there was nothing about exposure, travel history, or symptoms. No one was wearing a mask in the airport, no one was checking temperatures, and there was only a small sign and a bottle of hand sanitizer to suggest any concern over a possible outbreak.

Attempts at Social Distancing Abroad

Zurich appeared a bustling city, and wasn’t yet feeling the burden of COVID-19 when we arrived. Museums were packed, 20-somethings waited in long lines for popular brunch spots, and people of all ages boarded trains over the weekend with only a backpack and skis.

Matt and I felt must have seemed extremely neurotic, as we took our little bottle of hand sanitizer and wet wipes everywhere, and appeared to be the only ones attempting social distancing and hand hygiene. We avoided public transportation in favor of exploring the city by foot, tried to choose less crowded streets and restaurants, wiped down everything from passports to credit cards and suitcases, and used our homemade hand sanitizer constantly. When we did take the train, we tried to find relatively empty cars (hint: the family/kids car), chose less busy trains, and wiped down seats, tables, and arm rests. We did visit a museum in Zurich where we came into contact with a fair number of people, but did our best to maintain distance, sanitize constantly, and avoid crowded exhibits. Still, probably not the best practice at this point in time.

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Busy train station in Zurich

Zermatt

Ever since I lived in Bergamo, I had dreamed of skiing across the Swiss- Italian border for a lunch of pizzoccheri (a type of pasta), but obviously our timing wasn’t ideal. We arrived in Zermatt the day the Italian side of the ski resort (Cervinia) closed, and were told that some tourists had been arrested earlier that day for skiing over the border.

After checking into our apartment, we wiped down all surfaces then picked up groceries for the week at a local grocery store. We had planned to cook most of our meals anyways as restaurant prices in Switzerland are insane ($$$), but we ended up staying in and cooking all of our meals. We spent our days on the ski slopes trying our best to get a gondola to ourselves up the mountain, taking extra care with hand hygiene in public restrooms, and we spent our evenings cooking and catching up on the news, while others partied at the local bars.

As our week went on and the situation in northern Italy worsened, we noticed fewer crowds, and a greater effort towards hand hygiene and social distancing when it was convenient.

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Got a gondola to ourselves

Trump’s Travel Ban

Six days into our trip in Zermatt, we awoke at 3 AM to calls and messages from concerned friends and family, who had heard Trump’s announcement of a European travel ban. We’d known something like this was a possibility when we’d left for Switzerland, after all, we were headed very close to the Italian border, but at the time risk of travel to Switzerland was low. Ironically, there still are fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Valais region of Switzerland than in Los Angeles, but Zurich and Geneva have seen exponential growth in confirmed cases. While it looked like the ban wouldn’t apply to American citizens, we figured it was a good time to get home, as airlines prepared to suspend flights from Europe.

After a long last run down the mountain, we hopped on a train (along with quite a few Americans making an exit), and headed to the Zurich airport. We caught a very full flight to Heathrow as soon as possible (nothing like the threat of a travel ban to actually increase risk of transmission).

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Exploring on foot

Mass Exodus

“Simple measures you can take to help prevent your self and your family are wash your hands often and for at least 30 seconds, avoid touching your face with dirty hands, and catch coughs and sneezes in a tissue and throw it away. If you follow these simple measures, together we will help combat the spread of coronavirus. Further information is available on posters and in leaflets when you land and on the NHS website.”

British Airways Pilot prior to landing in the UK from Zurich, Switzerland

As our flight began its descent into London Heathrow, I was glad to hear the public health announcement over the occasional coughing heard around the plane. Yet, after landing there were no questions about symptoms, no officials in PPE, no one taking passengers’ temperatures. Instead, we arrived to another security checkpoint where we were required to empty/throw away liquids, and I received another pat down for my insulin pump (as if the screening, pat down, and liquids requirements in Zurich were insufficient/ the biggest safety concern).

I wondered what would await us when we landed at LAX a few hours before the travel ban was to com into effect, but again, I was surprised. An extremely quick screening, no questions about our travel history, symptoms, or quarantine recommendations. Instead, the customs official asked apologetically if we’d cut our vacation short, & when Matt asked about the ban/recommendations for travelers returning from Europe he shrugged and said, “We know as much as you do. We are told something different every day.” So, while I am shocked that screening was so lax on one of the busiest travel days from Europe and official info was scarce, I am not shocked that there has been chaos & long wait times since screening measures were tightened this weekend.

Current Screening Measures

According to various news outlets, enhanced entry screening began hours after we had returned to LA, causing chaos, confusion, and long wait times. Passengers arriving from Europe have been grouped together with hundreds sometimes thousands of people in close quarters for hours awaiting a secondary screening with temperature checks with the risk of being emergency evacuated. Those that pass screening are apparently being told to self-quarantine themselves.

While I am of the opinion, that these screening measures should have been instituted a while ago, I am glad that some kind of screening is finally taking place. I am not, however, happy to hear how poorly these enhanced screening measures have been implemented, and the increased risk of transmission as a result of long waiting times and large crowds.

Measures to Minimize Risk While Traveling

  1. Social Distancing- Avoid crowded restaurants, bars, gondolas, trains, museums, gatherings, buffets as much as possible.
  2. Wash hands whenever possible for 30 seconds. Hand sanitizer when not. We made hand sanitizer using 1 part aloe vera gel to two parts isopropyl alcohol (91%), but the Lin Lab at Stanford suggests glycerol if aloe vera is unavailable.
  3. Explore on foot instead of using public transportation
  4. If you have access to a kitchen, stay in and cook, or order delivery
  5. Avoid touching your face.
  6. Wipe down all surfaces! We used wet wipes or this 70% alcohol spray we picked up at a local Swiss pharmacy.
  7. When traveling, sanitize items that comes into contact with others or surfaces- your ID or passport, ticket, the drink you get from the flight attendant, tray tables, seat belts, armrests, head rests, the window, the ventilation nozzle, the overhead bin handle, your zipper, your phone, insulin pump… You get the point.
  8. Choose the window seat in a less crowded part of the plane if possible. A study by researchers at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology suggested that influenza or other droplet-transmitted respiratory infections may be less likely to transmit to passengers seated father away than two seats laterally and one row in front or back on an airplane.
  9. Maintain 6 ft. of distance from people as much as possible
  10. Wipe down credit cards , passports, water bottles, bag handles, basically whatever touches another human being or surface.
  11. Better yet, use Apple pay if possible, so no one else has to touch your card.
  12. Monitor yourself for symptoms, and if you do develop symptoms contact the appropriate agency immediately by phone for instructions. Matt and I carried a thermometer and checked our temperature daily.
  13. And please please please DO NOT hoard masks. Those who work in healthcare know how to use them and actually need them to protect their patients. I’m hearing all sorts of horror stories from my friends who are nurses and physicians, about critical procedures that cannot be done due to this mask shortage.
  14. And by the way, you probably don’t need 500 rolls of toilet paper either.
  15. Consider self-quarantine/ working from home for 14 days if possible.

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