Taking a trip? You need to plan for the possibility that you might get COVID-19 while you’re far from home. Here are a few strategies to consider.
Planning a vacation? You've got company: Americans are traveling in record numbers this summer after more than two years of pandemic restrictions.
Travel abroad is booming now that the U.S. government no longer requires citizens to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or of recent recovery from COVID-19 in order to fly home, per the current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But with COVID-19 surging in many parts of the United States and the rest of the world, it pays to strategize about what to do if you get sick while you’re away.
Sure, having a backup plan won’t dispel the disappointment of a vacation disrupted by the virus. But at least it will make things a little less stressful, not to mention safer.
So, what can you do? We consulted with infectious diseases specialists and other sources to get their advice.
Note: No matter where you’re going, make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines and boosters — and pack a few COVID-19 testing kits and N95 masks in your luggage, just in case.
If you’re traveling internationally, visit the U.S. State Department site or Borderless for the current COVID-related travel protocols for testing, vaccination, and quarantining for each country.
You’ll definitely want a heads-up about what a positive test result might entail. “Check the details before you travel in case you are going to a place where a positive COVID test might mean confinement in a government-mandated hotel, dormitory, or hospital,” says Michael Blaivas, MD, chief medical officer at Anavasi Diagnostics and emergency department physician at St. Francis Hospital in Columbus, Georgia.
Hong Kong, for example, is currently enforcing post-arrival testing and mandatory quarantines in designated hotels for positive cases. Visitors to Canada must submit travel plans to the government three days before arrival, and depending on vaccine status they may be subject to mandatory testing and quarantine protocols.
Venturing to a destination within the United States? Find out the current level of community transmission there, to assess your chance of contracting COVID-19 while visiting.
Before you pay for your flight, find out if your airline will let you change your departure or return plans penalty-free, in case you or a family member tests positive for COVID-19 before or during the trip.
Look into adding a travel insurance policy that covers COVID-related changes or cancellations. Many of these policies now treat COVID-19 like any other medical emergency — if you’re sick and get a doctor’s note you can change your flights or hotel reservations with minimal or no penalties.
Be sure you read the fine print (including state-by-state restrictions) before you opt in, so you’ll know what’s covered. A cancellation due to fear of contracting COVID-19 often won’t qualify; neither will government-related COVID-19 restrictions, such as a country tightening its rules for entry.
As an alternative, consider getting a CFAR (cancel for any reason) insurance policy. Those usually cost more but could be worthwhile if you decide to cancel your trip due to circumstances not covered by other insurance plans.
Depending on when you test positive or show symptoms, you may need or want to extend your trip in order to quarantine.
It’s a good idea to run through potential scenarios in your head before you travel. For example: If you or a family member tests positive during the trip, will your hotel allow you to stay longer and quarantine in place? Will the hotel offer any discounts for an extended stay if you need to quarantine? Some hotels are offering special quarantine packages this summer.
Remember that according to CDC guidelines, you will need to isolate for at least five days after a positive test or symptom onset, and delay travel for 10 days. Also, anyone who has had close contact with you should quarantine for five days and test on Day 5.
If you’re negative and symptom-free but a close contact in your group tests positive, you will also need to quarantine for five days. Find out if your destination has any designated quarantine hotels where you can stay if needed; many countries that used to offer this no longer do.
Airbnb and Vrbo have their own COVID-19 policies: Airbnb’s protocols currently don’t allow guests who are knowingly infected or exposed to COVID-19 to check in.
What if you’ve already checked in and you test positive while there — can you extend your stay? The current Airbnb policy doesn’t specify; it may depend on the host’s rules and flexibility.
Vrbo’s current policies do not prevent guests from booking a home for a quarantine, and some Vrbo properties even advertise themselves for that purpose, like this cottage on a farm in Colorado.
Of course all of this can add to the expense of a trip, and you may need to investigate more affordable options. Does a relative or friend living in the area have a vacant home or extra space you could use to isolate if necessary, or can they ask around on your behalf?
For road-trippers: If you test positive along your route, do any hotels in the area offer contact-free check-in so you can quarantine without exposing others? Research options ahead of time.
“I tell my patients, especially those who are traveling overseas, to be prepared,” says Kunjana Mavunda, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist at Kidz Medical Services in South Miami, Florida, and former medical director of epidemiology and disease control at the Miami-Dade Department of Health. “It would be best to isolate yourself, check into a hotel, and just stay there until the symptoms are gone.”
In a hotel, might you risk exposing staff or other guests? “If you can isolate yourself in your room in a house or stay in a hotel and you don't have to have people coming in and out, and you can have room service put the food outside, it’s okay and it’s ethical,” Dr. Mavunda says.
“If you are forced to come in contact with others, wear an N95 mask and frequently sanitize your hands. Make sure people that might have to be around you are doing the same,” she adds.
“Make sure you have everything you need for an extended stay of up to 10 days in case you are quarantined in the location you are visiting,” says Dr. Blaivas. That includes extra medications that you rely on daily.
You may also want to investigate travel medical insurance if you’re leaving the country, since most U.S. health insurance plans won’t cover you while you’re abroad. This is especially important if you have any special health conditions that may require you to see a doctor should your trip be extended because you develop COVID-19 or come into close contact with an infected person.
“Give some thought as to what medical care would be available if you do become sick,” says David Banach, MD, MPH, a hospital epidemiologist at UConn Health in Farmington, Connecticut. “That’s true for COVID as well as other illnesses during travel. Have a sense of what type of medical care you can access.”
“If you are feeling significantly ill and are in a location where medical care is of high quality, then seeking medical treatment is a very good idea,” says Blaivas. “If traveling somewhere [where] the medical systems are not well developed, then you are better off contacting your travel insurance, assuming you are not feeling very sick and have to go to the nearest emergency department, and get a consultation about possible evacuation back home.”
Adds Blaivas, “If you are getting significantly ill from COVID, there are several treatment options which will decrease the symptom severity” — including antiviral medications such as Paxlovid. “Some may not be available outside of the United States, so check before you travel,” he says.
Telemedicine might be a convenient option for consulting with a doctor while you isolate, but Dr. Banach cautions that “accessing telemedicine from abroad can be tricky” depending on your Wi-Fi connection. Check the CDC site for more info on telemedicine options.
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