UPDATE: This TPG reader tested positive while on vacation in St Lucia; Here's what happened next
Editor’s note: As cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 continue to rise, travelers abroad must consider the possibility of a positive test result prior to reentering the U.S. TPG reader and aviation journalist Chris Sloan shares his story about testing positive for COVID-19 while on a family vacation to St. Lucia.
This story has been updated with new information.
Being locked down in strict COVID-19 isolation is not how we expected to spend the last part of our Caribbean Christmas vacation.
We took a calculated risk in traveling internationally to an all-inclusive resort on the island of St. Lucia.
Though the vaccination rate in St. Lucia is low, the country and resort we chose have strict COVID-19 protocols. My wife, son and I are fully vaccinated, and my wife and I both have a booster shot. Meanwhile, I had also traveled extensively internationally in 2021 without contracting the virus.
All of this gave us the confidence to proceed, though in retrospect I admit that I was too optimistic about traveling internationally in the age of omicron.
Here’s my tale about testing positive while abroad — and our subsequent quarantine saga.
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COVID-19 protocols in St. Lucia
To enter the country, all visitors must have a negative COVID-19 test within five days of departure, and to leave a resort in St. Lucia, you also must be fully vaccinated.
Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery
Upon arrival at Saint Lucia Hewanorra International Airport (UVF), all passengers are sent for secondary temperature screenings. While on the island, visitors are required to wear white bracelets indicating vaccination status.
Once we arrived at the resort, we were tracked for contact tracing and asked to apply sanitizer. All hotel staff are fully vaccinated and are properly masked. As resort guests, we were instructed to be masked when approaching any staff at the bar, check-in, restaurants, etc.
In addition, temperatures are checked at each restaurant on the property before admission. Social distancing is requested, but in true island fashion, is instructed to be of “nine coconuts” in length (instead of 6 feet).
COVID-19 symptoms and testing
A minor cold
A day into our trip, I developed a very mild cold with just a few sniffles, but no fever. I thought (or hoped) that I had caught a cold from my son, who had developed one after we arrived.
The symptoms mostly dissipated, and I thought nothing of it. We ended up having a delightful week at the resort. Though there were some service snafus due to staff shortages that are plaguing the industry, the accommodating team still made it a pleasant stay.
Testing to return to the US
The day before we were scheduled to go home, we all took our mandated antigen tests – a requirement to reenter the U.S.
Related: How to determine your testing window for returning to the US
Waiting for the results cast an anxious cloud on the day. I returned from the beach after soaking up the last of the tropical sun, and my son informed me that the hotel manager called with an urgent message. I had yet to receive my results by email, though my family members already did.
I didn’t have to be clairvoyant to know where this was going. My heart sank. The manager gently confirmed that my results came back positive.
Fortunately, my wife and son tested negative. Nevertheless, he firmly informed me that my family and I would have to quarantine immediately in our rooms. In the morning, I would take a PCR test to confirm whether I indeed had contracted COVID-19.
Needless to say, we would not be traveling back to the U.S. the next day.
What happened when I tested positive
The next morning, a nurse employed by the government dressed in full protective gear and a face shield showed up at our door to conduct our PCR tests.
The results were fast-tracked at the lab and within two hours we had the answer we didn’t want to hear. The PCR test confirmed my positive COVID-19 diagnosis.
We were told to await further instructions from the health authorities. In the meantime, we were to remain in our room and not permitted to venture outside.
St. Lucia observes World Health Organization guidelines. The just-announced Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in the U.S. don’t apply here. We were told that my wife and son, despite testing negative twice, would be in quarantine for seven days from the time of their test since they had been in direct, close contact with me.
Meanwhile, I would be quarantined for up to 13 days after the day of my first symptoms. That meant we could leave Jan. 3 and Jan. 4, respectively. However, our predeparture round of tests must also come back negative before we could depart.
The hotel and medical costs are to be paid by the guest, though there is a special “COVID-19 package rate.” If we had elected to not take the resort up on its offer, we could stay at the government housing (a refurbished hospital) as an option.
Related: As the omicron variant rises, here’s what to do if you need to cancel your trip
What quarantine was like
A folder of menus for room service was dropped off. A bag of linens, towels and cleaning supplies was left shortly after. We would be doing our own housekeeping, for obvious reasons.
It didn't take long for us to settle into our confinement routine.
Each day began and ended with a visit from a nurse to check vital signs, temperature and interview for symptoms. We passed the time with board games, TV binging, reading, audiobooks, writing and even makeshift calisthenics and exercise in the room. A friend had offered to send me his Peloton online membership.
I began to refer to our resort as Papillon: the prison in paradise. With our spectacular view and mild symptoms, no one should pity us. But we’re certainly not free. We’re at the mercy of a foreign government and are guests at the hotel. We are grateful. We had it easy compared to what many others have gone through.
Thankfully, our request to transfer from a beachfront room to a more remote minisuite with a separate living area on a higher floor was granted. This gave us more space to not be on top of each other and semi-isolate amongst ourselves.
The real bonus was the balcony — not for its epic views but because we could finally go outside for exercise and fresh air. However, we had to remain masked even on our isolated perch. There were no guests visible anywhere around us but the resort and government took no chances.
Meals, normally not the focus of our vacations, became the eagerly awaited highlights of the day. The hotel staff was wonderful and they treated us like royalty. They even dropped off a bottle of pinot noir and cognac each evening.
The resort’s fireworks display was canceled due to COVID-19, as were many New Year's Eve celebrations around the world. But fortunately, we could see an impressive spectacle in the distance. Down below our balcony, the revelry continued into the night. It was a reminder that we were still stuck inside, but we avoid going out on New Year's Eve back home anyway.
I am also glad we overpacked with COVID-19 in mind. That meant we brought extra clothes, medication, books and more to keep us occupied in the event this happened. The hotel even cranked up our internet bandwidth to keep all of our devices streaming.
Things to keep in mind if you end up quarantined
Our quarantine routine became akin to the movie “Groundhog Day." Wake up. Eat breakfast. Exercise. Clean the room. Work. Post on social media. Eat lunch. Read. Film videos. Stream TV. Play board games. Toast the sunset with adult and child beverages. Eat dinner. Talk to friends back home. Go to bed. Rinse and repeat.
If you find yourself stuck in a similar situation, keep a few things in mind.
Give the resort grace
Our resort was ahead of its skis in keeping up with their stated COVID-19 plans.
Meal orders sometimes took two to three hours to fill and were often wrong or lost. Garbage pickup and fresh linens and towels deliveries, which were supposed to be automatic, had to be requested multiple times.
Without exception, the staff was very friendly but the resort was clearly understaffed because of COVID-19 sick days and recruiting issues plaguing the industry as a whole.
I did write to management to request improved service. Travel expectations have to be reframed and reined in the age of COVID-19, but my family and I had become frustrated. We didn’t want anyone to get in trouble and it felt somewhat entitled to write the note, but we were paying for our isolation vacation.
The response was candid and apologetic.
“I would like to thank you very much for your kind words and sentiments expressed with regards to the positive parts of your stay, it will be shared with the resort team members," said the duty manager in their response. "I am however saddened, by the not-so-good parts, and I do offer my sincerest apologies, where we may have fallen short."
They did explain how the property was doing its best to accommodate us, but that serving guests during a quarantine where constant room service, cross-contamination concerns and a different housekeeping protocol were all considerations was a challenge.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, remember that the resort may not be prepared to offer the seamless and constant service that you would hope for while quarantining. Most properties are doing the best they can with guidance from local authorities.
Quarantine in paradise comes at a cost
The most common comment we heard was, “Hey, there could be worse places than paradise to be stuck." That’s 100% correct — no one should feel pity for us.
We had epic views and beautiful weather versus a hospital room. Room service at an all-inclusive resort is definitely an upgrade over DoorDash. And most importantly, my symptoms were mild and my family remained healthy.
We’re grateful, but this experience did come with a high price tag.
Thankfully, the resort discounted their normal high-season rates by 50% for the COVID-19 package, but we were still paying for many more nights at a resort than we originally planned. The PCR and antigen tests cost $200 and $75 apiece respectively. Nurse visits were free, thankfully.
We are still looking into reimbursement options for testing through our health care provider. Fortunately, booking American Airlines award travel provided flexibility at no additional cost.
Adding in tips, additional transportation, incidentals and our dog sitter back home, the full freight was a $4,500 hit to our budget.
Messy quarantine timelines if traveling with family
My wife and son never tested positive for COVID-19, but because of our close contact, they were still required to quarantine for seven days. I was required to quarantine for 13, and the different timelines could have posed even further issues.
After seven days, they were eligible to be released. The day before they were scheduled to travel, they were both given PCR tests. If either came back positive, the quarantine would reset to 10 days for both of them since they were asymptomatic.
The scenarios offered myriad unfortunate possibilities. My son could end up missing nearly two weeks of school. One of us would obviously need to stay with him, too. If my wife was infected, could she end up having to stay isolated alone?
It was an anxious day as we nervously awaited the results. With the crush of New Year’s departures, test results were backed up. It wasn’t until around 10 p.m. that we received positive news — they both tested negative.
They were released from quarantine effective at 12:01 a.m. local time. To celebrate, they both left the room just after midnight for their first taste of freedom in a week by taking a walk on the beach. They departed for the airport the next day, but I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until they texted me that they were on the plane.
You can get back into the US with a letter of recovery
My quarantine ended 13 days after the onset of symptoms. Even though a final antigen test came back positive, the World Health Organization and St. Lucian authorities deemed me no longer infectious after the prescribed 13 days.
The airline and U.S. government accepted my recovery letter from the Health Ministry in lieu of a negative COVID-19 test to reenter the country.
My recovery letter was sent to me the morning of departure back to the U.S., and I was free to leave my room. After nearly eight days in isolation, I can’t describe the feeling of exhilaration of being free to walk on the beach and eat breakfast in a public space knowing I would be going home soon.
I decided to treat myself and splurged on a scenic helicopter shuttle to St. Lucia’s main airport, forgoing the 90-minute drive through twisty roads. This would enable my arrival at the airport three hours before departure in case there was a problem.
I'd feared that the positive COVID-19 antigen results might create another issue. I presented the recovery letter and that sufficed for check-in and immigration. Everything went smoothly, and I was wheels up a couple of hours later. St. Lucia is a beautiful island with beautiful people, but I confess it looked a lot better in the rearview mirror.
I am an intrepid traveler — my wife and son not so much. We had our moments of squabbles, but they were troopers during this entire experience.
When we were booking this vacation, it felt low risk compared to some of the other destinations we had in mind. But with omicron surging, I admit to underestimating the risk. Even though we are up to date with our vaccines and boosters, and now the added antibodies from COVID-19, I would still think twice about traveling internationally again until this surge is well behind us.
Being quarantined in your own home is one thing. Being quarantined in a foreign country, with an inconsistent patchwork of restrictions and regulations, is another thing entirely. The shorter CDC guidelines with regards to a five-day quarantine post-symptoms and negative test don’t hold water in St. Lucia, which recognizes the 10-to-13-day standard from the WHO.
We’re fortunate that we were able to absorb the additional cost and time away, but that's certainly not the case for everyone. Next time, I will be looking closer at available COVID-19 insurance policies. Though expensive and not all-encompassing, they are worth considering.
Our next trip planned for spring break was originally to be Iceland to see the northern lights. Instead, we have switched to a domestic (but no less exciting) destination. We’ll be chasing the aurora borealis in Alaska. My advice after this experience is to be flexible, prepare for and expect the unexpected. And if the unexpected does happen, make the best of it.