Travel in the Time of Covid: Getting There Is Easy — It’s Getting Home That’s Hard
I’m being held captive in England by the U.S. government.
On the day my wife and I were to fly home from London after a brief visit, we took a covid-19 test, as required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to travel to the U.S. The United States will not allow anyone to fly into the country who has tested positive for covid, and it is up to the airlines to enforce that.
My wife’s test was negative.
My test was positive.
She flew out.
I stayed put.
I stayed put and tried to figure out what to do next. And as anyone who considers traveling overseas should realize, the hard part isn’t getting there. It might not even be avoiding covid, though that’s getting tougher. It’s getting back to the United States.
I am not allowed to fly for 10 days. After that, if I have a negative test, I’m free to go.
But while in Britain, I don’t have to quarantine. The British government says I’m free to do whatever I want. I can ride the stifling Underground, visit beautiful museums, or stand in line for a crowded indoor concert. I could go full Typhoid Mary, if I wanted, and wander into quaint pubs, all without a mask. Hardly anyone in England seems to bother to wear one.
What I can’t do is ride an airplane, with air recirculated every three minutes, among people required to wear masks the whole time. Had I caught covid while in the U.S., I could freely fly from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco — masked, of course — without a problem. But not over the Atlantic.
So I was looking at 10 days of hotels, which are not cheap in London. It’s not as if I can call a friend here and say, “Hey, I got covid. Can I crash on your living room sofa?”
But a colleague who travels often to London made a suggestion: Go to Brighton, the classic beach town on the English Channel. Hotels cost a third less there. Brilliant. (It’s seedy and charming and historical. Worth a trip.)
I rode the train down, and what had only been a scratchy throat did develop into a dry cough, some sneezing, a loss of appetite, and maybe even a slight fever. I wore a mask whenever I went out.
Meanwhile, covid cases were rising rapidly in Britain. Hospitalizations, too.
The British government estimated that nearly 3.5 million people in England tested positive last week, about 6% of the population. British doctors on Twitter are warning again of stressed hospitals. Drugstores had masks, lots of sturdy masks, but not a single covid test. All Boots stores, the British equivalent of CVS or Walgreens, had printed signs that said they were all out and to try again tomorrow. Those signs were never taken down during my stay, and I hit several stores every day. While masked.
My symptoms quickly went away, and after four days I felt fine again. I continued to wear an N95 mask. My Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the half-dose Moderna booster recommended by the CDC apparently did the trick.
But, now, how do I get back? Here’s the problem. There is a chance that some little piece of the virus remains in my body. So if I take another test and it’s positive, I’m stuck here again — with no symptoms except a bleeding wallet. I didn’t want to take that risk.
Fortunately, a Facebook friend happened to post something about her husband, who was caught in a similar circumstance. His solution was to pay a private doctor to attest that 10 days after his first symptoms, he no longer was contagious. For $185 he got a legitimate “certificate of recovery” that deemed him “fit to fly.” And he got home.
I’m going to try that. Wish me luck — because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about traveling to another country during covid, it’s this: You may not get horribly sick, but your personal finances will feel the pain.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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