What to do if you get COVID while traveling


Packing for a trip these days looks a lot different than it did a few years ago. Now in addition to your passport, medication, and sufficient underwear, you’ll want to throw a few at-home COVID tests in your luggage as well, at least that’s what medical experts are recommending as people set out for the busiest summer travel season since the global pandemic hit two years ago.

“The biggest key is prevention and protection,” warns Dr. Michelle Prickett, associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine physician. “If you’re not vaccinated, now is the time. Anyone over age of 50 or anyone with chronic medical conditions should have their second booster as well. Think about where you’re going and how you can limit interaction with others to have a safe trip.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should not travel if you have COVID-19 symptoms, test positive, or are awaiting test results. If you test positive, you’re not supposed to travel “until a full 10 days after your symptoms started or the date your positive test was taken if you had no symptoms.” Additionally, if your test comes back positive while you are at your destination, “you will need to isolate and postpone your return until it’s safe for you to travel.” Plus, your travel companions may also need to quarantine.

But people aren’t exactly following the rules–whether it be due to the costs of extending their hotel stays and/or rescheduling flights or the inability to take additional time off from work–and are traveling anyway.

What do you need to know before you go? We talked to a few experts to find out.

Be prepared

While you’re in the booking stages of your trip, check with your airline and accommodations to see what their COVID policies are and what would happen if you need to cancel your trip for health reasons. As an extra precaution, consider purchasing travel insurance. 

As your group’s planning the itinerary for your trip, you’ll also want to have a frank discussion to ensure you’re all on the same page with safety precautions, such as being up-to-date with vaccinations, limiting high-risk activity in the days leading up to the trip and wearing masks while on the trip.

“It’s about a group of people agreeing to be careful because you share risk when you’re with other people. It’s about shared risk and shared responsibility,” notes Dr. Preeti Malani, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan and an infectious disease specialist. “And I think most people are really thoughtful about this. They want to get together and keep their families safe.”

In addition to extra tests, masks and a thermometer, Malani recommends keeping a readily available list of your healthcare providers’ contact information and an up-to-date list of your current medications because of potential drug interactions.

“If you have high-risk medical conditions, being careful about the kind of trip you’re going on is important, too,” she cautions. “You don’t want to be too far or too remote and you’ll want to figure out ahead of time which hospitals are in your area as there are lots of parts of the country where there’s no ICU care.”

You’ll also want to discuss a contingency plan for what happens if someone in your party does contract the virus while traveling and research healthcare facilities, urgent care, and pharmacies, at your destination in case you need treatment. 

Be cautious

While traveling, doctors recommend you social distance as much as possible and continue to wear high-quality masks, such as an N95 or KN95, in order to stave off infection.

“This is about mitigating risks, not eliminating them. There’s not one thing that takes care of all risks,” explains Malani. “But when you layer those things like vaccination, testing, and being thoughtful about mask wearing, it can help bring the risks down.”

But if you start experiencing COVID symptoms, you’ll want to take a COVID test as soon as possible. Timing is of the essence when it comes to getting proper treatment, if needed, says experts.

“The sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can potentially get some therapeutics and look into the options that are available at your destination,” says Prickett. “So have a high level of suspicion, wear your mask, get tested, and then retested if symptoms persist.”

Be courteous 

If you happen to contract COVID while traveling, isolate yourself from the rest of your party as soon as possible and try to extend your stay.

“There is ideal and there is reality. Ideally, have a separate room, separate bathroom, and [if you] can potentially extend your stay. Anyone exposed should monitor themselves for symptoms, test, and wear a mask around other people given increased risk of infection,” explains Malani. “That said, some people may not be able to do this.”

If you’re unable to book a private room, Malani recommends wearing masks in the room for both the infected and uninfected people.

“If a close household contact has COVID, it’s going to be hard to avoid spread especially if you are sharing a hotel room—it just depends on how susceptible other people are to infection,” she says. “Best bet is to isolate anyone who develops symptoms, even mild ones, and put on masks.”

Should your child become sick while traveling, the same rules apply: test, try to isolate, limit exposures. If the child is old enough to wear a mask, they should do so and the caregiver should wear one as well.

The highest risk for infection is during those first five days, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be diligent afterward. 

“After those first five days, you can start to do things, but the masking should be really, really tight. You have to be really strict about it,” says Dr. Mark Loafman, a Cook County Health family physician in Chicago, who specializes in infectious disease outbreaks, public health, healthcare research, and health policy. If it’s a three-hour flight, don’t take the mask off.” Even if doing so garners a few stares at the airport.

“We just need to be vigilant and be confident that we are doing the right thing and not let peer pressure or social pressure stop us from doing the right thing. It really isn’t that big of a burden to wear a mask,” continues Loafman. “I just encourage people to continue following the guidance and be a role model and do things right. COVID is going to be with us for a while and this is just going to be a way of moving forward.”

Malani agrees and wants to ensure people are able to gather and travel safely.

“After a couple of years of not being able to do the things that are really important to us, this is a good time to try and do it. With a bit of planning and thought from everyone involved, you can do this safely,” she says. “There’s not going to be a magic moment in the coming months where the risk is completely gone. And it’s going to be higher and lower sometimes, but there’s no time like now to do the things that are important to us.”


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