8 lessons learnt when I got COVID-19 overseas
Lost luggage, missed connection, travel sickness? Those are the worries for the 2019 traveller. As countries start opening their borders and everyone starts renewing their passports and searching for affordable flights and hotels in the post COVID-19, the million dollar question on every traveller’s mind is “What if I get COVID-19 when I am overseas?”.
This was the exact same question I asked myself when my husband D invited me to join him on a trip to the United States last December. He was attending a work conference in Washington D.C. and proposed that we start and end our trip in New York to bookend work with some fun. Like everyone else, we had been landbound for two years and I was excited at the prospect at travelling again. But soon the practical side of flying out of Singapore made me nervous.
I had not fallen to the big C yet.
Eventually, my wanderlust won out and the holiday did materialise. And so did my biggest worry. I did end up testing positive for COVID-19 in the States. These are what I learnt from my adventure.
1. Wear a mask
In New York, only individuals who were not fully vaccinated were required to wear a mask indoors, much more relaxed mask mandates than back in Singapore. Although we had our two vaccinations, we still wore masks everywhere we could including when we were outdoors. We were super careful and ended up getting takeaway for most of our meals to eat in the hotel room so we would avoid being around unmasked people. It was definitely surreal seeing people’s whole faces again as most didn’t wear a mask especially when outside.
Our efforts did actually pay off. It was only when we took the train to Washington D.C. where D ended up in close contact and unmasked during a work meal with a colleague (who would eventually test positive for COVID-19) when our big C adventure began.
2. Schedule an official PCR test ASAP
One evening in Washington D.C., D developed flu symptoms like a headache and body aches. He immediately did a self test with one of the ART test kits we had packed. While that particular test result was negative, we continued to practice mask wearing and safe distancing.
The next week, back in New York, D took another ART test as his company required all employees to take an ART test every Sunday as part of its workplace safety regulations regardless of the country he was in.
This routine test displayed the dreaded two lines. D had hit the jackpot.
We have heard of times when the ART test results were not accurate so we quickly booked a PCR test at a test centre for the next day. That PCR test result showed that indeed D had COVID-19 while I still tested negative - for then.
We were supposed to fly back home that very week. Our States holiday had to be extended now.
If you are feeling unwell, it is advisable to schedule an administered PCR test as soon as you can, even if you may have a negative ART test result. We learnt this the hard way because if D had received a positive PCR result after his first negative ART one, we would not have to extend our trip for as long as we did.
Especially for travellers who are visiting a country that requires you to be quarantined for a number of days once you test positive, you could save days by being quarantined earlier than later.
3. Know your destination’s quarantine requirements
Now, the big question was “What do we do now?”
While the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommended positive COVID-19 individuals to stay home and self-isolate for five days, there was no local health authority D had to report to or any quarantine hotel or facility that he would have to go to.
When planning your travels, do not forget to research your destination’s most updated quarantine regulations and requirements. Some countries require travellers to report their COVID-19 positive status to the local health authorities. Each country has its own recommendations on how long to isolate at home and some countries will have COVID-19 positive individuals moved to a hospital or treatment centre.
4. Know your airline requirements
Besides your destination country’s regulations, making sure you are familiar with your airline’s requirements for flights is also important to avoid a situation when the airline does not allow you to board the plane, even if you have met your destination country’s quarantine requirements.
Our new plan included making a reservation in the same hotel for another two weeks. Although D only had to self-isolate for five days, we could not fly home on Day Six even if he tested negative. Back in December 2021, besides a negative ART test result, Singapore Airlines would only allow passengers on board 14 days after their first COVID-19 symptoms.
5. Check your Visa requirements
If a Visa was required for you to enter the country, it is best to know whether your Visa will expire if you have to extend your trip or you have to apply for an extension.
6. Buy extended travel insurance and keep all your receipts
This is a no-brainer. Thankfully, both of us had purchased travel insurance that covered all COVID-19 related expenses including accommodation, tests, medical expenses and more.
Even though both of us wore masks and gloves, kept our distance between each other, and disinfected everything that D touched, the inevitable happened. After seven days, my routine ART test showed a positive result.
What a bummer. Our stay in the States had to be further extended.
We depended on food delivery apps and ordered necessities to be sent to the hotel, only daring to venture out once two of us finally tested negative. The silver lining was we experienced little symptoms and nothing some Panadol could not fix.
Not being the most organised people, we had to actively remember to save all receipts from the test invoices to the pharmacy bill that included disinfecting wipes and medicine, to claim from the travel insurance.
As no one had expected the trip to have overrun by that much, our travel insurance covered only two of the extended weeks and not the last. We forked out the expenses from the last week in New York from our pockets - an expensive lesson indeed.
7.Pack as if you are going to get COVID-19
This tip might sound ominous but keep an open mind.
Though we did pack five ART test kits for the trip, we did not have enough when we were self-isolating. This proved to be a problem because we would not be able to know when we finally would test negative. At this time, there was a shortage of ART test kits in the States - securing one was far harder than contracting COVID-19. We did get very lucky and managed to get some kits after much searching and angst, but I did wish we brought more.
And this “overpacking” would include your laptop, if you have to get back to remote work after your leave is over even if you are in another country, common medication and extra underwear!
8. Buy a local SIM card
I had switched out my Singapore SIM card to a local one from the start of the trip and this proved helpful in hindsight as we spent much time (think hours) calling the airline to change our flights, including listening to the much dreaded elevator music. I could not imagine how much my phone roaming fees would be if I had not used a local SIM card!
My three-week holiday turned into a six-week adventure. And that is the very real risk of travelling during these times.
No one wishes to get COVID-19 especially abroad, but the best you can do is be very prepared. So I hope the lessons I learnt are useful to you and good luck!