As COVID continues to spread, it’s not just causing trip cancellations ― sometimes the disruption happens mid-travel.
A Michigan schoolteacher made headlines in late 2021 after she tested positive for COVID during a transatlantic flight and then spent five hours isolated in an airplane bathroom.
Hopefully, that’s a rare case. But there are other likely scenarios in which someone gets COVID away from home. Getting the vaccine and booster offers protection from severe illness and hospitalization. But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it’s very possible to still contract the virus and get a breakthrough case. And while your symptoms will likely be mild, you can still spread COVID to others.
That’s why travelers should take action and follow the proper protocols as soon as they test positive. So, what should you do if this happens to you during a trip? Below, experts break down the best practices for dealing with a breakthrough COVID infection while traveling.
Isolate as soon as you know or suspect you have COVID.
“The current guidance is that you isolate for at least five days and then, if your symptoms are improved or if you had no symptoms at the time of testing, that you wear a well-fitting mask for an additional five days,” said Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth in Colorado. “If you have persistent symptoms or have not improved, you would need to isolate for 10 days.”
Whether you are traveling domestically or internationally, find a place to safely isolate as soon as you test positive.
“This could be in a hotel or a similar temporary accommodation, or a relative’s home,” said Karl Minges, dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences. “If you are sharing a space with others who have not been exposed or do not know their status, one should isolate in a separate area of the home ideally that is far away from others and with its own bathroom. Be sure to wear a mask and minimize contact with others.”
Consult local guidelines.
While isolating is almost universally advised, the procedures can vary depending on your destination, especially if you’re traveling abroad.
“Specific countries may have other protocols to follow, especially those that have ‘zero COVID’ policies,” Minges said.
Indeed, some countries require those who test positive to stay at specific government-mandated quarantine facilities. Others offer long lists of approved places for isolating, or general quarantine requirements that could apply to a number of venues.
Even within one destination, the options can vary. One hotel might allow guests who test positive to stay and isolate, while the one next door might not.
“Additionally, you should ensure that you are aware of local or country-specific regulations related to leaving isolation,” Barron said. “There may be a requirement for testing.”
If you’re uncertain about any guidelines, consult the local public health website for domestic travel, or the U.S. embassy’s website for the foreign country you’re visiting. You can also contact the office directly for clarification ― or to address other concerns, like a travel visa potentially expiring during your extended stay.
Take stock of what you need.
There are logistical considerations when it comes to quarantining away from home ― like food and medication.
If possible, try to isolate in a place with access to restaurant or grocery deliveries. The designated quarantine facilities in various countries typically provide meals (though you might be charged for the food and the stay).
For travelers who are able to remain at their original hotels, the staff might be able to help facilitate deliveries ― not just for food, but also for other essentials like medication. If you don’t have enough of your prescription meds to last the extended stay, there are steps you can take.
For those traveling domestically, contact your doctor to request a refill at a local pharmacy that offers delivery. If you’re abroad, get in touch with your pharmacist or a travel medicine specialist to find out the equivalent in the country you’re visiting. The U.S. embassy can also provide assistance by connecting you with a reliable local pharmacy.
Test yourself again.
“If you test positive for COVID while traveling ― whether it is domestic or international ― you need to isolate for five days and ideally take a rapid antigen test to end isolation,” said Lucy McBride, an internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C. “If it’s negative at day five in a person with no or resolving symptoms, the chance of infecting someone else is low.”
McBride recommends that COVID patients who still have symptoms like fever after five days of quarantine test themselves with a rapid antigen test daily until they are negative before ending isolation. Still, this might not be an option for everyone.
“A major challenge with the testing recommendation is the lack of access to affordable tests,” McBride said.
Lab backlogs and at-home test shortages have posed issues during this latest COVID surge. But if you do have a rapid test on hand, go ahead and use it if your symptoms are gone or improving after five days of isolation. For COVID-positive travelers in foreign countries, this negative result can get you back home (or back to your planned travel adventures) sooner, depending on specific testing requirements, of course.
Continue to mask up.
“Current science suggests that if you are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that are improving, the five days of isolation with five [additional] days of masking is sufficient to limit potential transmission to others,” Barron said.
She noted that “a medical grade mask” is preferable when you emerge from that five-day isolation period.
Fully vaccinated people generally don’t require hospital visits when they experience breakthrough cases. But if your symptoms worsen as you isolate, mask up and find a health facility.
“If someone is having persistent fevers, cough, or shortness of breath, it is highly recommended that you seek medical attention,” Barron said.
Be prepared before you go anywhere.
Before you take a trip in 2022, it’s important to prepare for the possibility of contracting COVID-19 to make the experience as painless as possible.
“If you are traveling, please ensure that you have checked the local regulations regarding testing and masking so you are prepared,” Barron said. “Additionally, consider what your backup plan is if you do test positive and have to isolate.”
Pack enough prescription medication to last through an unexpected quarantine. Find out your hotel’s policy for guests who test positive, including the rates for additional nights.
Build an unplanned extension into your budget or research travel insurance options that offer coverage if you have to cancel certain plans due to a breakthrough case. There are now even companies that offer COVID evacuation options for international travelers.
Otherwise, make sure to follow pandemic health guidelines ― masks, vaccinations, social distancing, hand-washing, staying home when you feel sick ― throughout your travels. Pay attention to the latest developments and consider the risk factors for yourself and your loved ones.
“Also, ask others with whom you will be traveling their vaccination status, so you can make the proper risk calculation, and always seek to be double vaccinated and boosted if eligible,” Minges said.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.