Coping with the Covid testing requirement for returning to the US
September 4, 2021 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Since we're fully vaxxed, as of many months ago, and will hopefully be boosted soon, the urge to test the waters with foreign travel has been ramping up recently. But the CDC's requirement for a negative Covid test to return by plane to the US is giving us the jitters.

Most likely, we'd visit a country in South America or Europe with low infection rates, hoping to avoid a Delta breakout infection.

The hesitancy to our plans revolves around the requirement that *all* flyers into the United States show a negative test for Covid--vaccine status be damned. Although the risk probability is low, a positive test would throw a wrench into an otherwise pleasant flight home, making in necessary to find an Airbnb for a week or so and hunker down.

Would that--ie, a quick change of plans and extended stay--be the only scenario if we rolled the dice and came out positive for Covid? Or, are there other strategies to cope with this remote possibility--for example, retesting and hoping for a negative result? As for testing for Covid abroad, would it be possible and advisable to rely on a home testing kit rather than visiting a local pharmacy?

Has anybody--either as a returning citizen of the US, or a traveler into the US from the outside--had experience with the CDC's Covid testing requirement, to the extent that you might be able to offer helpful tips or advice?
posted by Gordion Knott to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you get a positive test, even fully vaccinated, you could potentially transmit COVID to other people on the flight. You would need to isolate for ten days. Please make sure you have contingency plans for a positive test. I am uncomfortable with providing any advice that would put a positive person on a flight.
posted by quadrilaterals at 8:04 AM on September 4, 2021 [31 favorites]

The vaccine prevents severe disease but you can still catch and transmit covid after being vaccinated. My understanding is that false positives are quite low for PCR tests. So… are you asking for ways to break the rules and fly home on a plane if you catch covid while you are traveling? That is not a thing people should be doing.

You shouldn’t travel if you can’t factor in a potential extra two weeks of isolation if you get sick while you’re away.
posted by beandip at 8:09 AM on September 4, 2021 [20 favorites]

I recently went to Canada and took one of the home testing kits which included video observation and it was fairly easy. I got it mailed to me and took it in my suitcase. However, I had family to stay with if I had needed to quarantine.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 8:19 AM on September 4, 2021

Per the CDC’s guidelines the only way to use a home test to fulfill the CDC requirement is if you do so in conjunction with a video telehealth appointment with the manufacturer of the test, who must confirm your identity, the validity of the testing procedure, and the result. Only documentation from the test manufacturer will be accepted as evidence of a negative result from a home test—you can’t just take an ordinary home test, say “I passed”, and expect that to suffice.
posted by muhonnin at 8:25 AM on September 4, 2021 [6 favorites]

A friend who is a US citizen returned to the US from Mexico in early June and had no issues. They're fully vaccinated, not in a high-risk group, ate at restaurants daily but took the typical genpop precautions in public spaces, and were traveling in a large city in Mexico where vaccination was increasing and mask use was generally the rule.

From their report, all of the testing etc was bog standard with multiple options available. They were able to order a covid test appointment from a service that came directly to their (large, business traveler) hotel, and it was taken and completed within the three-day CDC requirement. As a backup, they had also looked into the available covid testing at the major international airport in their city in case the testing company wasn't able to provide results in time.

It's good they got it done in advance, as the testing at the airport that morning would have taken five hours, so the advice is to do it as early as possible so you have time to result and/or arrange delayed travel if you get a a positive. For what it's worth, this friend had some flexibility in travel dates and and would been able to stay in Mexico for longer had the test failed, so that made things easier.
posted by mochapickle at 8:28 AM on September 4, 2021

In most European countries, if you get a positive test then you will have to isolate for ten days (or whatever local regulations state) regardless of if you took a second test that was negative.
posted by knapah at 8:32 AM on September 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

I recently flew internationally for a short unavoidable trip (5 days to a Scandinavian country). My destination required proof of vaccination and proof of negative test, and of course the US requires negative test as well. One thing to note, I am in a US state that has a system for verifying proof of vaccination (you can't fake it).

1) prior to departure I quarantined for two weeks
2) three days prior to departure I took the test (antigen) required by my destination. Airline staff checked test and vaccination paperwork before allowing me on the plane.
3) during a layover inside the US I got a rapid PCR as well ($$$). I had previously arranged for this layover to be 7hrs long in order to make the testing times. Airline staff checked all of my paperwork again before letting me on the plane.
4) I did my trip
5) because this was a Scandinavian country the government was competent, and ran a standardized PCR testing regime that required advance booking, so once I arrived in-country I booked my PCR test to meet the US requirements.
    5a) I also booked refundable accommodations in the event I failed the test. My hotel had a special notification you could give them, saying that this stay was for quarantine if required.
    5b) I received my test results in about four hours, and cancelled my emergency accommodations. I paid a small sum for this convenience.
6) for my return flight the airline staff checked my paperwork before letting me on the plane
7) once in the US nobody gave a shit about any of my paperwork

If you can choose your destinations, do so based on the testing availability IMHO, and if you fail the test you will not be allowed to board your plane so you will need to extend your stay via a quarantine (the airline will refuse to carry you, so it won't be a matter of convincing some TSA goon to let you in). The quarantine specifics depend on what country you're stuck in; mine allowed a hotel of my choice, others may require government-selected locations.

It is a huge expensive pain in the ass, so make sure you budget for all of the testing and have a backup plan in-place for quarantine if anyone in the family fails.
posted by aramaic at 8:43 AM on September 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

We just went to Ireland for two weeks in early August. I was extremely stressed about this requirement, when we made our travels plans I had expected that the US would relax it for vaccinated travelers, and might have made a different decision about travel knowing how stressed I would be about it. BUT it all worked out in the end, we had an amazing trip, and we did not catch Covid.

We bought this six pack of BinaxNow tests through eMed. Brought all 6 with us (for 2 people) because I figured if we had an initial positive test and thought it might be a false positive, that we might be able to test again to double check accuracy. I also researched options for doing a back up PCR test in person if the Binax test gave us positive results, again, worried about false positives messing things up. Also, I heard from a friend that the first test kit they opened up on a different trip was missing a component of the test kit, and if they hadn't had a backup kit with them they would have had problems.

The window for testing before returning home is three days, so we legit woke up at 6 am the morning of 3 days out from our flight home and tested. I figured that gave us the most time to troubleshoot if needed. I had also heard anecdotally of long wait times for the telehealth connection later in the day. We had no wait connecting with a proctor online, the testing process was super easy, and we luckily got negative results and everything was fine.

We were very, very cautious while traveling, and Ireland really was taking Covid precautions seriously, so it actually felt more safe there than over here in the US. We only ate outdoors, everyone was masked indoors everywhere, and their vaccination rate is really good (and of course we are fully vaccinated, and we left our too-young-to-be-vaccinated kid back in the US with family) . So overall our risk during the trip was pretty low. Also, we did a soft-quarantine for ourselves at home before the trip, couldn't avoid work obligations but we basically stayed home as much as possible and didn't do anything fun or socialize for at least a week before our trip.

If your airline has an app for uploading vaccination proof and testing proof, use the app!! So many people on our flights to and from Ireland were so confused by all the Covid requirements, and they took forever getting through lines. We used the app recommended by Aer Lingus and sailed through with no problems.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 8:50 AM on September 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh God yes, definitely +1 for the airline app!
posted by aramaic at 8:55 AM on September 4, 2021

One more thing to add- I had not really thought about what might happen if we were pinged through contact tracing about contact with a positive case. Everywhere we went in Ireland was meticulous about taking contact tracing info, and it only occurred to me while we were there that it would have been a major problem to get pinged and have to deal with that. Something to think about if you want to be prepared for all contingencies.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 9:03 AM on September 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm horrified to be able to report that some friends of ours (both vaccinated and one pregnant) recently came back from a week at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean where the test they got on departure may have been intentionally lax because positive results would be bad for business. After the husband recounted this, I asked, "did you get tested again when you got back?" They hadn't. Two days after that conversation they both tested positive and his pregnant wife spent a couple days in the hospital because of some complications that may have been caused by the infection. They had attended an event indoors and had to contact the organizers, who had to contact every attendee to say that another attendee had tested positive.

I don't know if they were infected at the resort, on the plane, or just randomly somewhere else along the way, but the risks are very real and the medical and social complications are difficult (my wife and I both had to get tested and take extra care until we got our results). This isn't a situation where you can just blithely shop for better results. If you can't afford the contingency of a positive test with extra isolation time you're having to pay for, and maybe even required treatment before you can return, then you can't afford to travel.
posted by fedward at 9:13 AM on September 4, 2021 [27 favorites]

I travelled out of the US for business in early July and needed to get tested before the flight home, this is before the massive wave of delta - I was double vaccinated before the trip and was tested multiple times in the country as per their requirements, daily antigen tests, pcr tests, and a serology test - as well as specifically to re-enter the US per the US requirements and for my own peace of mind for my family - daily antigen tests and a pcr test 3 days after I returned.

It's not a big deal to get tested before you get on a plane to come home but in my experience it required a PCR test and required that test to be date stamped within the allowable window before the flight.

I encourage you to make sure you understand the requirements of returning to the US and what the host country requires as well. In my case we had contingency plans where I would stay in the host country if I tested positive through the time it took me to recover. The business also arranged for insurance to cover the contingency and I knew that there was a chance my 1 week trip could turn in to 3+ if I got sick.

I will also say that traveling now, even vaccinated, vs early July before Delta really slammed in to gear was a much different calculus - I don't think I would travel now.
posted by iamabot at 10:03 AM on September 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

We went to Iceland in June. We booked and paid for our return tests at a Reykjavik clinic before leaving the U.S. The system there was efficient and clear. We didn't make any special plans for what to do if any of our tests came back positive, figuring, perhaps naively, that someone in Iceland would probably be telling us *exactly* what we could do in that case.
posted by shadygrove at 11:53 AM on September 4, 2021

If you're not prepared to deal with the consequences of contracting Covid while travelling, you should not be travelling. Sorry, but that's table stakes these days.
posted by Candleman at 12:10 PM on September 4, 2021 [11 favorites]

I don't think OP is asking for ways to skirt the requirement, travel with Covid, or fake a test. They are asking for people's experiences with satisfying the testing requirement and the logistics of what happens if one tests positive. I think asking if there's a possibility of a second test is not out of line, as one wants to make sure they weren't hit by a false positive. That is not proof of ill intent.
posted by Anonymous at 2:19 PM on September 4, 2021

Would that--ie, a quick change of plans and extended stay--be the only scenario if we rolled the dice and came out positive for Covid?

Pretty much, at least until you test negative again.

Or, are there other strategies to cope with this remote possibility--for example, retesting and hoping for a negative result?

From recent experience, it's more likely to come out false negative than false positive. Retesting and rehoping may not work out in the way you want to.

As others said, if you can't possibly take another 10-14 days (or whatever the quarantine is at the time) to have to wait it out after testing positive, traveling during Covid may not be for you. I know I sure as heck don't want to deal with the testing drama and will not go on a trip again unless the pandemic ever ends at this rate.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:58 PM on September 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

We flew to Europe in June and took our return to U.S. tests at a local clinic in the city we were staying; I actually don't think we even discussed whether to do self testing instead, because there was no particular reason we would need or want to. We were required to register our contact info and address of where we were staying upon arrival so I am fairly certain that had we tested positive, there would have been an immediate follow up. We didn't make any special plans for the scenario where one or both of us had tested positive, but we have family in that city (and thus would not incur great cost to quarantine) and jobs that would work around our absences if that was the case (inconvenient but no danger of being fired).

I think a lot of people wonder whether they can just re-test and hope for the best, but from my experience it seems extremely unlikely that you would not be subjected to some type of quarantine, and every country is handling that differently. My advice is to worry less about the testing requirement to return to the U.S. and spend considerable time researching what is required in the country you will be in, should you choose to travel internationally.
posted by sm1tten at 4:33 PM on September 4, 2021

Foreign tourist and business points of departure to the US have a very well developed infrastructure for traveler COVID testing. The only thing you need not to do is rely upon the one COVID testing location at the airport which can be in a low-ceiling basement with a 3-hour line. It will be included in your tour, or arranged by any competent travel agent. If you book everything yourself, your hotel may have the testing on site or will have a dozen options for you.
posted by MattD at 8:34 AM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

+1 that if the possibility of needing to test and potentially quarantine abroad for some time is too daunting, for any reason, you should not travel internationally during this pandemic. You need to travel having made total, unequivocal peace with the idea that you could get sick and be stuck there for a while, and that this uncertainty is part of the cost of traveling the world right now.
posted by potrzebie at 9:42 AM on September 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I visited Croatia earlier this year after getting vaccinated (but before Delta became a problem), and preparing for my return to the US was stress-free mainly because even in the capital city, the airport is small and not very busy, so it was convenient to get a rapid test there a couple days before my return flight. That was before the tourist season kicked into high gear though, so I don't know how busy they are now.

As many others have commented, however, you do need to be prepared to extend your trip by a couple weeks if you test positive and are required to quarantine. (Fortunately that didn't happen to me, but I was willing and able to stay if necessary.)
posted by ambulatorybird at 6:13 PM on September 5, 2021

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