Valni Haughton, Head of Occupational Health at Cathay Pacific Airways, shares information about the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) based on expert advice from the WHO, IATA and Hong Kong’s local health authority, and how Cathay Pacific is responding to the situation.
What is the novel coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses found in both animals and humans. Some can cause illnesses in people, ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The new, or ‘novel’ coronavirus is a previously unidentified strain of coronavirus, which is responsible for the outbreak that began in Wuhan, China in December 2019.
How concerned should we be?
As with other respiratory illnesses, the novel coronavirus can present with mild symptoms including a runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever. It can however be more severe for some persons and, on rare occasions, the disease can be fatal. Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as diabetes and heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.
The risk of exposure will depend largely on a person’s location and whether there is ongoing community transmission of the novel coronavirus. People living or travelling in an area where the virus is circulating may be at risk of infection if they come into close contact with a symptomatic infected person.
Is it safe to fly right now?
According to IATA medical advisor Dr David Powell, the risk of contracting a virus onboard a flight is probably lower than in many confined spaces, because modern aircraft have cabin air filtration systems equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Arrester (HEPA) filters. These filters have similar performance to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms. These filters are effective at capturing 99.999 per cent of airborne microbes in filtered air. Furthermore the cabin air system delivers approximately 50 per cent outside air and 50 per cent filtered, recirculated air. This means the supplied air is essentially sterile.
The information available tells us that the novel coronavirus spreads primarily through contact with a symptomatic infected person’s respiratory droplets, which is generated when a person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose. This is called ‘droplet spread’. Similar to other diseases that are spread via this route, the risk of infection to passengers is very minimal, but maintaining good personal hygiene is always recommended while travelling on a plane.
Should I wear a mask?
One question we are commonly asked is whether passengers should wear masks when on a flight. Both the WHO and IATA recommend to only wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing or taking care of someone who is suspected or confirmed to have the novel coronavirus. Masks are also only effective when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning. The best thing to do is follow this practical advice.
What is the Cathay Pacific Group doing to prevent the novel coronavirus spreading?
We are closely following and implementing all recommendations from the WHO and IATA. Our aim is to assist local health authorities to limit further spread of the disease by maintaining high hygiene standards in our planes, lounges and workplaces; and providing our employees with appropriate, evidence-based information and tools to protect themselves and our passengers. We are also flying essential medical and other supplies into Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland.
Do you have any other tips?
There are many alarming reports surrounding the current outbreak circulating in the news and on social media. These can create significant stress and panic in the general community. The WHO has been addressing these types of reports in its press conferences and putting them in context. It is therefore very important that you verify any claims or reports against reputable sources such as the WHO, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USCDC) or European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) before accepting them as the truth.
Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon are continuously monitoring and updating their safety measures in response to the current situation. Visit their novel coronavirus (COVID-19) information centre for the latest updates and more information about the precautionary measures they’re taking
What you can do to protect yourself onboard
Wash your hands frequently
Washing your hands frequently with soap and water and using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser are the best ways to keep yourself healthy. Also avoid touching your face, eyes, mouth and nose, and try to avoid touching other people or shaking hands.
Why? Washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand rub eliminates the virus if it is on your hands.
Practice respiratory hygiene
When coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue – discard the tissue immediately into a bin or airsick bag and clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water afterwards.
Why? This helps prevent the spread of germs and viruses. If you sneeze or cough into your hands, you may contaminate objects or people that you touch.
Take extra precautions if you’re unwell
If you have a cold or virus it is advised that you avoid travelling. However, if this is unavoidable, it is recommended you wear a mask and seek medical care promptly if you develop symptoms of the disease (such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties).
Why? Avoiding people when you are sick, or wearing a mask, will help to stop you spreading germs to fellow passengers. Masks should be changed at least once a day to stop the build-up of bacteria, and should be disposed of carefully.