Michelle Fishman calls it the “worst-case scenario that you don’t really think through.”
After a three-week vacation in Greece, the 52-year-old hotel arts consultant from Miami and her husband took coronavirus tests before leaving, which are needed for the flight home from overseas. She tested positive, he didn’t.
Although coronavirus travel restrictions have been eased in many parts of the world, the United States still requires all international air passengers to present a negative test taken within one day of departure. And according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ms Fishman should have isolated and delayed the trip by 10 days, but said she had to get home earlier to officiate at a wedding.
Instead, she took advantage of a quirk in the rules to head home after five days (the self-isolation period mandated by the Greek government) via a “back door” — crossing to the United States by land, which does not require coronavirus testing, instead of by air. Since Canada does not require a test for entry, the couple first flew to Toronto, and after spending the night there, Ms. Fishman and her husband drove across the border to Buffalo and flew home. (There is no mandatory examination for domestic flights.)
“I had zero symptoms, no fever, nothing. I felt fine and if 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 travel,” Ms Fishman said. “It doesn’t make sense that I can go to a wedding in Miami five days after testing positive, but if I catch the virus on vacation I can’t fly home. That should be illegal.”
It’s not clear how many infected people are using backdoor routes to get home, which may include flying to Mexico and using a land crossing there, as airlines don’t ask for reasons for flight cancellations or rebookings. But strong anecdotal evidence suggests some travelers — and travel advisors — are making suggestions on how to avoid getting stuck.
Flying to Toronto, Ms Fishman said she followed the guidance of a family friend, who used a similar backdoor route to get home to Boston, when he tested positive in France in April.
Asked if she was concerned about infecting other passengers on her long journey home from Greece (she tested positive again on her fifth day), Ms Fishman referred to the CDC’s guidance for people residing in the United States with the virus Those infected with the virus who say that asymptomatic people or those with symptoms that have resolved 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 the disease course, according to the CDC.
“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 when I took the flight home,” Ms Fishman said. “I wore a mask the whole time.”
The CDC hasn’t said why it has different guidelines for Americans who test positive domestically and internationally, but a spokeswoman for the agency reiterated that travelers should follow the 10-day guideline not to travel before boarding a flight climb to the United States. even if they test negative. The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the possibility of travelers using land borders to circumvent testing requirements for air travel.
The United States introduced mandatory testing in January 2021, when less than 10 percent of Americans were vaccinated and cases of new infections and hospitalizations reached record levels. Now, with higher vaccination rates and fewer severe cases of the virus, many American travelers, as well as industry officials, are calling for the requirement to be lifted, arguing that it does little to prevent the spread of new variants of the virus in United States.
“The existence of these workarounds underscores the absurdity of the current inbound testing policy, which is downright ineffective,” said Erika Richter, vice president of communications at the American Society of Travel Advisors, a trade organization. “We don’t follow science.”
David Freedman, president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, is concerned about travelers using the method and warns that infectious people taking a flight or public transportation to a border crossing will trap many people who are unable to date about their vaccinations at risk, including at airport restaurants and other places along the way.
“From a public health perspective, the infectious person may carry any of the new BA variants. 4 or BA. 5, which is more contagious and not as common in the US yet,” he said. “By the fall, there could be new improved vaccines, and introducing these variants sooner rather than later could be a bad thing.”
After testing positive in Stockholm in early April, an American traveler and her wife decided to return to Seattle via Vancouver because a US-Canada border crossing was relatively close to where they lived. If she had to take a test upon arrival at Vancouver airport, she said she plans to go home and isolate herself there. The woman asked to speak anonymously because she feared negative repercussions.
“We had symptoms for about two weeks before testing positive. When we actually tested positive we felt great, with hardly any symptoms, so we felt confident about traveling,” she said. “Vancouver Airport is pretty laid back and low key. If you look healthy, determined and relaxed, no one will pull you out of the crowd.”
Canadian officials often ask passengers health questions upon arrival, and some airports, like those in Toronto and Vancouver, may randomly select some passengers to have coronavirus tests before they’re released to exit the airport.
Canadian authorities are warning infected people against attempting to travel through Canada, saying they will not be allowed to board flights into the country if they have Covid-19 symptoms or have been infected within 10 days of their departure. Prior to arriving in Canada, travelers must fill out a health and travel form in the ArriveCAN app. The form contains a series of questions, including vaccination status and whether a passenger has any coronavirus symptoms.
“All travelers arriving in Canada are required by Canadian law to answer all questions truthfully,” said Rebecca Purdy, a senior spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency.
“Travellers who knowingly travel to Canada with an active Covid-19 infection and fail to disclose this information may face penalties and/or criminal charges, and foreign nationals may also be refused entry and/or barred from returning to Canada,” Mrs Purdy said.
Mexican authorities did not respond to requests for comment. US travelers can enter Mexico without testing or quarantine, although they may be subject to health screening upon arrival.
Despite the cost of last-minute bookings, the backdoor routes are also used pre-emptively by people to ensure they can travel home on time.
Hilary Aranda, 39, a user experience designer, had just wrapped up a two-week dance tour in Italy when 12 Americans in her group tested positive. To avoid a positive result and the possible headache that it could bring, she never took a test, instead canceling her flight home to Los Angeles for a flight to Tijuana, Mexico, with stops in London and Mexico City. Then she crossed the land line into San Diego and drove home. The changes to her itinerary cost her more than $2,000.
“Everyone around me had Covid and I knew with my luck that if I did, the test 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 crazy decision and a big slip but I had to get back to my life and my kids.”
Some travelers who are more risk-averse but still determined to avoid isolation in another country have used telemedicine services like Quick MD to receive “documentation of recovery” that allows people to travel to the United States without having to submit 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 healthcare professional authorized to issue travel authorization, some travelers lied about the date their symptoms began so they could return home without having to complete the 10-day isolation period.
“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 trouble with authorities. He tested positive in London a day before his scheduled flight home to New York, he said, but returned home three days later.
“I received my release document within an hour, it was so easy,” he said.
Quick MD has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Ms Fishman made it home in time for the wedding and never developed Covid-19 symptoms, although she said she felt exhausted, which she attributed to the stress caused by the ordeal of getting back in time.
“My chances of catching Covid in Miami are the same as traveling so the testing requirement is useless in my opinion,” she said.
Travelers considering a similar route should be warned that they can get caught. Ms Purdy of Canada Border Services noted that violating instructions when entering Canada could result in up to six months imprisonment, a fine of CA$750,000 (approximately US$586,000) or both.