I got a positive COVID-19 test in the middle of a trip. Here's what happened.
Editor’s note: A TPG reporter was diagnosed with COVID while traveling. We decided to share their story below but have left their name off this post for the sake of their privacy. Throughout the experience, our reporter followed CDC guidelines and the advice of multiple doctors about quarantining and having minimal contact with others.
Like many of you, I’ve been itching to get back in the air and travel again. It’s been mentally tough for me to stay home and not get out there — something that had become part of who I am during the past few years. So, when I was given the opportunity to cover Hawaii’s reopening to tourists and United’s new COVID-19 testing process at SFO in October, I jumped at the chance.
It was meant to be a quick work trip: one night spent in San Francisco before my early-morning testing appointment and flight, two nights in Honolulu and then I'd be back home again.
It was going to be a brief and fast-paced trip, but I’d never been to Hawaii before and it had been since early March that I’d set foot on a plane so even a small slice of paradise sounded amazing. For lack of a better term, I was hype.
Of course, even the best-laid plans go awry, and the universe threw me a major curveball in San Francisco: a surprise positive COVID-19 test result.
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Testing process at SFO
Backing up a bit, United Airlines has teamed up with GoHealth and Color, two of Hawaii-approved testing facilitators, to provide COVID-19 testing at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for eligible Hawaii-bound passengers.
Under normal circumstances, your flight must originate from SFO to be eligible for testing (likely to prevent the exact situation I found myself in this October), but an exception was made for me so that we could cover the actual testing process to report on as part of a media event. Normally, only United's SFO originating passengers can use this testing option ... for the exact reason you'll soon understand.
The testing process itself was a breeze.
In the bottom-floor courtyard area of the international terminal (where the Hawaii-bound flights are gated), they had lines with socially distanced dots on the floor set up for those awaiting their appointments. I’d filled out the necessary paperwork online after getting my appointment time set up, and a GoHealth employee checked me in and got me ready for my test.
I was given a nose swab and escorted to a private area for a quick virtual visit with a physician. He asked if I was feeling any symptoms (no), if I had experienced prolonged exposure with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 (not to my knowledge) and if I worked in a high-risk environment (no).
After the visit, I was escorted outside to a testing tent. A gloved, gowned and masked GoHealth employee swabbed my nose from behind a plexiglass separator (which was painless and took less than 30 seconds in total), and then sent the swab inside to where the testing machines were set up.
Related: 5 things to know about testing and visiting a reopened Hawaii
I waited for my test results with the others being tested in an outdoor waiting area with socially distanced chairs. Of course, I had assumed it would be a quick 15-minute wait and a simple, “Have a nice flight,” once I was given the results.
While the wait was quick, the result was certainly not what I had expected.
When I was given my positive test results, I was set up with another virtual visit with the same doctor as before, who gave me information on my diagnosis, what it meant for my health and the next steps for what I needed to do to stay safe and keep those around me safe (aka a 14-day quarantine).
What I was not given is a specific quarantine plan, advice on where to go next, or suggestions on how to best get there. I went from ready to board a flight to Hawaii to standing alone in the airport parking garage with a positive COVID diagnosis and no clear, official direction on what to do next. (Note that normally, non-local transit passengers do not test at SFO specifically, but if you do test on the road anywhere, you could find yourself in a similar situation.)
Last-minute hotel quarantining
Because I had flown from my home on the East Coast prior to testing, I was now out of the airport in a hotel parking garage stuck in a bit of a pickle, to say the least.
There was obviously no way I could just hop back on a flight to go home for my quarantine at home. And renting a car to drive across the country with a positive diagnosis wouldn’t have been a responsible (or frankly, desirable) alternative. I had packed a small carry-on with clothes for a three-day beach trip, not a two-week quarantine in an expensive city I’d never visited before.
Thankfully, I had an amazing team of coworkers who immediately got to work setting up the logistics of quarantining in San Francisco for two weeks. A rental car was booked (and a contactless pickup system at the airport meant limited risk for myself and others), and I made the drive to spend the next two weeks in a suite-style hotel room with a small kitchen.
While I hope you'll never need any of this information, if you find yourself needing to quarantine in an unfamiliar city, or even away from home in your own city, here are a few of the tips I learned during my stay.
Check for quarantine hotels
Some cities have hotels already set up for quarantining, so it is worth searching online to see if there is one available to you. In some situations, this may be available at no charge, though that will vary dramatically based on where you are and whether you are eligible.
Suites with kitchens are preferred
I love some good takeout as much as the next person, but I would not have survived for two weeks on three takeout meals per day. Luckily, we were able to book a suite-style room with a small kitchen so I could order groceries instead.
Of course, the hotel suite also had a decent desk set up so I could continue to work, as well as a way to log into my Netflix account so I could spend the copious amounts of free time on my hands binging my current TV show obsessions — Van Helsing and Agents of Shield (I’m still not through either of them, so no spoiling the endings).
Amazon Prime and Instacart are your friends
I ordered some essentials on Amazon Prime — clothes, clean undies, immune-boosting vitamins recommended by the doctor, etc. — and got groceries delivered via Instacart and left at my door.
In the delivery instructions for both, I was able to request that they simply leave the deliveries outside my hotel room door for totally contactless delivery.
Related: Online grocery delivery services guide
This is when a diverse points portfolio comes in handy
No one wants to have to shell out the money for an impromptu two-week quarantine. But these are situations where having a cache of “emergency points” really comes in handy. Fortunately, TPG covered the cost of my two-week stay plus all my groceries and emergency clothing -- and even a new stuffed friend to keep me company.
But had I been completely on my own, I would have certainly turned to my points and miles portfolio to cover the cost of quarantining.
I’m not suggesting that you start hoarding your points for a worst-case scenario, but it never hurts to have a small cushion of points for travel emergencies.
Communicating the risk with the hotel
If there is not a quarantine-specific hotel available to you, this is another unfortunate part of the situation you will have to navigate. San Francisco specifically has a rule on the books that a hotel cannot ask you to leave due to a positive COVID diagnosis as long as you keep paying for the room. However, it is possible that similar rules aren't in effect everywhere. While you need a place to stay -- and quickly -- in situations like this, you also have a duty to do everything possible to not infect others.
What I learned from my experience
I was lucky, all things considered, but this situation highlighted many failures -- some mine, and some more systemic.
Personally, I made it out of my two-week quarantine mostly unscathed. A few days into my stay, I developed minor congestion for a couple of days, but otherwise had no symptoms at all. Not everyone who contracts COVID-19 is nearly as fortunate.
I had zero symptoms when I stepped on the flight to San Francisco. Yet, somehow I had picked up the virus, based on the timing, likely in the days before the trip.
Thankfully, Hawaii was diligent about requiring testing before allowing tourists back in and their rules are precisely what caught my case. My plan was to stay socially distant while in Hawaii, but there’s no telling who I could have inadvertently passed COVID-19 along to while going about my days.
I know that testing before you travel can seem like a cumbersome step to take. I also know that wearing a mask isn’t anyone’s favorite accessory. But this experience is proof that the testing policies put in place by destinations that are welcoming tourists are an essential part of safe travel for the foreseeable future. And after being swabbed now approximately five times in the past month, I can confidently say that getting tested isn’t some torturous experience.
Related: How rapid COVID-19 testing can help travelers
Had I been flying home to see family rather than to a destination that required a test, I could have potentially spread COVID-19 to my high-risk stepfather and elderly grandmother — both of whom may not have been as lucky with how their bodies’ immune systems responded to the disease.
With the possibility of asymptomatic spread and more than 11 million COVID-19 cases having been confirmed in the U.S. alone this year, a much, much better plan in my case would have been to find a way to test before leaving home.
That can be tough to pull off with Hawaii's rule requiring utilization of only certain testing providers and needing results in hand that are no more than 72 hours old before going wheels-up to the islands. In some parts of the country, results simply don't come in that quickly. However, doing it that way is a better plan than getting stuck at a connection point along the way -- and potentially exposing someone else in transit.
On the whole, my experience also showed that while airport testing is on the rise, the system is just not designed to immediately kick in to safely quarantine a potentially infected person when a positive case is discovered, even when it happens at a major international airport. While my exact situation was an outlier that wouldn't happen in this exact way as United's testing partner doesn't typically test those simply connecting in SFO, an increasing number of airports are offering testing to all travelers.
Most travelers will likely be on their own to navigate that process if they find themselves in a situation as I did. The best plan is to try and avoid this potential situation as much as possible.
Related: Where to quickly get COVID-19 tested for travel
I’m back home, safe and COVID-negative now with no known lasting health ramifications at this point.
After going through contact tracing, it doesn’t seem that I spread COVID-19 to anyone who was in close contact with me. I experienced extremely limited symptoms and I didn’t have to dig into my personal savings to cover a surprise two-week stay in San Francisco. I had a team of people helping me with logistics when I suddenly found myself in a parking garage with a positive test result and no clear destination. But that isn’t always the case when someone gets a positive result, especially if it happens on the road -- or at an airport.
If you’re planning to travel -- either home for the holidays or internationally to explore one of the destinations reopening to tourists -- be diligent about getting tested and following CDC guidelines. I’m proof that the testing for travel system is working and helping prevent the spread to destinations that require testing, but the system is far from perfect.
But again, if you are going to travel right now, a much, much better scenario would have been finding out about a positive result before ever leaving home.