Michelle Fishman calls it the “worst-case scenario you don’t really think about.”
After a three-week vacation in Greece, the 52-year-old Miami hospitality consultant and her husband took pre-departure coronavirus tests needed to return home from abroad. She tested positive, he didn’t.
Although coronavirus-related travel restrictions have eased in many parts of the world, the United States still requires all international air passengers to present a negative test taken within a day of departure. And according to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ms Fishman should have self-isolated and delayed her trip for 10 days, but she said she had to return home early to officiate at a wedding.
Instead, she took advantage of a quirk in the rules to return home after five days (the mandatory self-isolation period required by the Greek government) via a “back door” – crossing the United States by land route, which does not require a coronavirus test, rather than by air. As Canada does not require an entrance test, the couple first flew to Toronto and, after spending a night there, Mrs. Fishman and her husband crossed the border to Buffalo and took a return flight. (There are no testing requirements for domestic flights.)
“I had no symptoms, no fever, nothing. I felt fine and when you’re in the US the CDC says you can end isolation five days after testing positive, so the same rules should apply when I’m traveling,’ Ms Fishman said. “It doesn’t make sense that I can go to a wedding five days after testing positive in Miami, but if I catch the virus while I’m on vacation, I can’t go home. It should be illegal.
It is not known how many infected people use circuitous routes to return home, which may also include flying to Mexico and using a land passage there, as airlines do not require passengers provide reasons for canceling or changing flights. But strong anecdotal evidence indicates that some travelers — and travel advisors — share suggestions for how to avoid getting stuck.
On her way to Toronto, Ms Fishman said she was taking the advice of a family friend who took a similar circuitous route home to Boston when he tested positive in France in April.
When asked if she was worried about infecting other passengers on her long journey home from Greece (she tested positive again, on the fifth day), Ms. Fishman pointed to the CDC’s advice for people who catch the virus in the United States, which says people who are asymptomatic or whose symptoms resolve within the five-day isolation period can leave their homes. The recommendation is based on the science that the majority of coronavirus transmission occurs early in illness, the CDC said.
“I slept in the same bed as my husband for five nights and he didn’t catch it, so I don’t think I was contagious by the time I got on the flight home,” Ms. Fishman. “I wore a mask the whole time.”
The CDC did not explain why it had different policies in place for Americans who test positive at home and abroad, but an agency spokeswoman reiterated that travelers should follow the advice 10 days not to travel before boarding a flight to the United States, even if they test negative. The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the possibility that travelers are using land borders to circumvent the testing requirement for air travel.
The United States introduced the testing requirement in January 2021, when less than 10% of Americans had been vaccinated and cases of new infections and hospitalizations hit record highs. Now, with higher vaccination rates and less severe virus cases, many US travelers, as well as industry representatives, are calling for the requirement to be lifted, arguing that it does little to prevent the spread of new variants of the virus in the United States. States.
“The existence of these workarounds highlights the absurdity of the current inbound testing policy which is simply ineffective,” said Erika Richter, vice president of communications at the American Society of Travel Advisors, an organization professional. “We don’t follow the science.”
David Freedman, president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, is concerned about travelers using this method, warning that infectious people taking a flight or public transportation to a border crossing will put many people who are not up-to-date on their risky vaccinations, including at airport restaurants and other places along the way.
“From a public health perspective, the infectious person may carry one of the newer BA.4 or BA.5 variants which is more infectious and not yet so common in the United States,” said he declared. “There could be new and improved vaccines by the fall and introducing those variants sooner rather than later could be bad.”
After testing positive in Stockholm in early April, an American traveler and his wife decided to return to Seattle via Vancouver, as a Canada-US border crossing was relatively close to their home. If she was to be tested upon arrival at Vancouver airport, she said, she planned to drive home and self-isolate there. The woman asked to speak anonymously because she was afraid of negative repercussions.
“We had symptoms for about two weeks before testing positive. By the time we tested positive we were feeling fine with hardly any symptoms so we felt confident to travel,” she said. “Vancouver airport is rather cold and discreet. If you look healthy, determined and comfortable, no one will take you out of the crowd.
Upon arrival, Canadian officials often ask questions about passenger health, and some airports, such as those in Toronto and Vancouver, may randomly select certain passengers to take coronavirus tests before being allowed to leave the airport. airport.
Canadian authorities are warning infected people against attempting to transit through Canada, saying they are not allowed to board flights to the country if they show symptoms of Covid-19 or have been infected in the 10 days following their departure. Before arriving in Canada, travelers must complete a health and travel form on the ArriveCAN app. The form contains a number of questions, including vaccination status and whether a passenger has symptoms of coronavirus.
“All travelers arriving in Canada are required by Canadian law to answer all questions truthfully,” said Rebecca Purdy, senior spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency.
“Travelers who knowingly travel to Canada with an active Covid-19 infection and fail to disclose such information may face penalties and/or criminal charges and foreign nationals may also be refused entry and/or or ban from re-entering Canada,” Purdy said. said.
Mexican authorities did not return requests for comment. American travelers can enter Mexico without testing or quarantine, although they may be subject to health checks upon arrival.
Despite the cost of last-minute bookings, backdoor routes are also used by people preemptively, to ensure they can get home on time.
Hilary Aranda, 39, a user experience designer, had just finished a two-week dance tour in Italy when 12 Americans in her band tested positive. To avoid a positive result and the possible headaches involved, she never took a test, instead canceling her flight home to Los Angeles for a flight to Tijuana, Mexico, with layovers in London and in Mexico. She then crossed the land border to San Diego and returned home. Changes to his itinerary cost him more than $2,000.
“Everyone around me had Covid and I knew with my luck that if I tested it would be positive and I didn’t want to risk it,” said Ms Aranda, who wore a mask on her flights. “Looking back, it was a bit of a crazy decision and a big schlep, but I had to get back to my life and my kids.”
Some more risk-averse travelers, but still determined to avoid isolation in another country, have used telemedicine services like Quick MD to obtain “recovery documentation” that allows people to travel to the United States without having to show a negative test. The option is available to travelers who continue to test positive 10 days after their first positive test or the onset of symptoms, as it can take weeks or even months for some people to test negative.
During the video or telephone consultation with a medical professional authorized to give travel authorization, some travelers lied about the start date of their symptoms in order to be able to return home without having to complete the isolation period of 10 days.
“It was a three-minute consultation, and I just told the doctor that my symptoms started earlier than they did,” said one traveler, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of getting in trouble. authorities. He had tested positive in London a day before his scheduled flight back to New York, he said, but returned home three days later.
“I got my clearance document in less than an hour, it was so easy,” he said.
Quick MD did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Ms Fishman returned home in time for the wedding and never developed symptoms of Covid-19, although she said she felt exhausted, which she blamed on the stress of the ordeal. try to get back in time.
“My chances of catching Covid in Miami are just as high as catching it while I’m traveling, so the testing requirement is unnecessary in my view,” she said.
Travelers considering a similar itinerary should be warned that they may be caught off guard. Ms. Purdy of Canadian Border Services noted that breaking instructions on entering Canada could result in up to six months in jail, a fine of 750,000 Canadian dollars (about $586,000) or both.