July 12, 2022 By Cameron Hewitt | Rick Steve's Europe
Reprinted with permission of the author
When I tested positive for COVID on the morning I was supposed to fly home from Europe — on day 46 of a 46-day trip — I realized something: At this stage in the pandemic, every traveler is expected to be their own ethicist.
The day before, I’d wrapped up a very busy seven-week research trip with a sprint through Glasgow. By mid-afternoon, I was feeling worn out. No surprise there — I’d just worked my eighth straight day without a break, and I had to push hard to finish up the final items on my list. By bedtime, back in my hotel, my throat was getting scratchy. I hoped it was nothing a good night’s sleep wouldn’t fix, and tried to get some rest.
I woke up early the next morning feeling decidedly crummy — my throat was worse, and I felt flushed. My flight was due to depart in just a few hours. So I faced a dilemma.
Less than two weeks earlier — on June 12 — the US had waived the requirement to present a negative COVID test to re-enter the country. And when I’d checked in for my flight, I was not asked any questions about whether I had symptoms. Technically, I was within my rights to shrug it off and get on the plane.
What would you do?
I imagine many of you would say: You should test, of course! And if you’re positive, you should postpone your flight.
And many of you would probably say: Come on! COVID is everywhere now. If you have it on the plane, so what? Certainly, others will, too. As long as you try to mask up, you might as well just go home.
I’m a pretty idealistic person. And since the very start of the pandemic, I’ve been preaching about the importance of looking out for each other. So, of course, the “right decision” was to test and wait.
On the other hand…
...if I was at the very start of a lengthy illness, wouldn’t it be better to recuperate at home? This could drag on for days. Not to mention the extreme hassle and significant expense of having to extend my stay.
These things seem clear in the abstract. But I have to admit, facing this question in real life was challenging. While I was deliberating, almost as a knee-jerk instinct, I fished around in my bag for my last remaining COVID test. I swabbed my nose, dunked the stick in the little tube of testing medium, and squeezed a few droplets of that solution into the reservoir on the test strip.
Since home tests became widely available, I’ve tested myself more times than I can count: before or after a trip; before seeing someone I didn’t want to expose; simply because I wasn’t feeling great. The test procedure, while thrilling and terrifying in those early days, had grown dull and anticlimactic. After a few minutes, I’d begin squinting at that little control line, waiting for the second test line to appear…and it never did.
This time, however…
That accusing red test line came through loud and clear, and very quickly. It was definitive: I had COVID.
Just to make sure, I strapped on my best N95 and ran to the nearby long-hours pharmacy. Just inside the door was a stack of home tests for £2 apiece. I grabbed six, used the self-checkout machine, and got out of there as fast as possible. I tested twice more back in the room. Both positive.
I called my wife, waking her up in the middle of the night, and we both agreed that the appropriate course of action was clear: I should postpone my return home.
And that’s how I wound up spending several extra days in Glasgow, stretching my trip past the 50-day mark — almost the entire time spent in my quite small (but comfortable) hotel room.
Those first few hours were extremely stressful: Reading articles on “what to do if you test positive for COVID,” I learned that some people continue having symptoms and testing positive for many, many days. A few days’ delay felt manageable. But I certainly did not want to spend another week or two in this little hotel room, far from home. I had things to do, a life to resume. As my flight departure time neared, I realized I could still just barely make it onto that plane if I left right now. Again, I was so tempted to head home.
This is a very confusing time to be making these decisions. Many governments (including in the UK, where I was, and the US, where I was going) are essentially washing their hands of the problem. They offer “guidance” and “advice.” But at the end of the day…it’s up to you.
For me, it came down to two points: First, I was feeling worse by the hour. At this rate, I’d be getting on my evening transatlantic flight just as I felt my crummiest. Selfishly, that did not sound like fun.
But the overriding concern was altruistic: I imagined the many people I know who are still being extremely careful. Some are elderly and have reason to believe that, even fully vaccinated, they might struggle with a COVID infection. Some have kids who are too young to be vaccinated (though, thankfully, that has started to change even since this happened). And some are immunocompromised.
It’s easy to say, “Well, those people shouldn’t travel, then.” Fair enough. But it’s also fair enough for someone who has put off a dream trip for two and a half years to finally say, “I know there’s risk. But I am tired of waiting. I will take every reasonable precaution to stay safe and take a leap of faith.” I don’t blame those people for getting on an airplane.
However, the wild card is other people’s behavior. I can’t control if someone with COVID gets on the plane for a nine-hour flight. But there is one thing I can control: Whether I am that person.
In the end, tempted as I was to just get home, I asked myself one question: “Would I want my parents to be sitting next to me for nine hours across the Atlantic?” And the answer to that question was unequivocal: No way.
I will say, I wish my airline (Lufthansa) had been more supportive of this decision. Because it was within 24 hours of departure, there was no way for me to change or cancel my flight online. After searching for a working telephone number for about a half-hour, then spending an hour and a half climbing through their phone tree, I was told that changing my flight would be possible only if I could fly home six days later…and the fare difference would exceed the original round-trip price.
It apparently made not one iota of difference that my sole reason for rescheduling was not wanting to expose Lufthansa’s passengers to COVID. This was treated as a matter of personal choice. (Which, I suppose, it was.) The best they could do was to suggest that “maybe” I could get future flight credit. They gave me another phone number to request this, and, after 30 more minutes on hold, I was told to email my request instead. The response could take weeks, if not months.
That night — right around the time that I would have been boarding the plane — my fever spiked to over 100 degrees and I had a severe case of chills. I was very glad not to be on that plane.
When you’re lying around for days recovering from COVID, you have ample time to ponder one suddenly very pressing question: How, exactly, did I get COVID?
The fact that I can’t pinpoint the answer tells you everything you need to know. Simply put, I let my guard down, and put myself in multiple situations where I could’ve been exposed. Partly because I was fully vaccinated and recently boosted, I was (perhaps foolishly) more willing to take on the risk. But I am living proof that “taking on the risk” can have real consequences.
When traveling earlier this year, I had been very careful: I masked anytime I was indoors, and I actively avoided indoor dining, with rare exceptions. On this trip, I was still masking on public transportation (planes, buses, trams) and in crowded museums…and I was, very often, one of the only people who was masking. Here’s me in a crowded ferry terminal — the only mask in sight — on the day when I suspect I was exposed.
And yet, I’ll admit, in other ways I was more lax. I stopped masking for brief conversations throughout the day with museum ticket clerks and hotel receptionists. These conversations usually last just a few minutes…but sometimes stretch (delightfully) much longer. Did one of those lovely digressions wind up exposing me?
Part of the reason I let my guard down was simply social pressure. In the places I visited on this trip, masking has become vanishingly rare. In dozens upon dozens of interactions each day, I could count on one hand the number of times the person I was talking to wore a mask. It started to feel pointless to mask up each time I went inside. I wish I weren’t so susceptible to “peer pressure,” but, frankly…when, time after time, you find you’re the only masked person, you begin to feel a bit like a weirdo.
Probably more consequentially, I also got in the habit of eating in restaurants. (Scotland’s unseasonably cold and rainy summer weather limited my outdoor dining options.) In retrospect, this might have been the main thing I’d have done differently, had I known how staggeringly high cases were in the places I was visiting.
Speaking of which, I believe the single biggest factor in how I got COVID is that Scotland was absolutely on fire with COVID while I was there. Later — when it was too late — I found a BBC News article estimating that, during the very week I was sick, one out of every eighteen people in Scotland had COVID. One in eighteen! With those odds, there’s no doubt I was exposed at multiple points each day.
To be honest, this news frustrated me. As I was traveling through Scotland, occasionally I’d hear, anecdotally, that cases were going up. I kept checking the same “dashboards” for global COVID rates that I’ve been relying on since March 2020 — keeping an eye out for hot spots. According to those numbers, Scotland’s rates were increasing, but not to an alarming degree.
However, those statistics rely on confirmed cases. And, like most other places, Scotland has drastically reduced formal testing. (The NHS Scotland website specifically says: “Most people in Scotland no longer need to test for coronavirus.”) Many people who have COVID never even know it for sure, or they know only because of a home test that they likely don’t report to the authorities. Those deceptively low case counts lulled me into a false sense that things were still under control, well after the point when they definitely weren’t.
Had I known the rates were one-in-eighteen, you can be sure I’d have upped my masking. Would that have made a difference? Maybe not. But I wished I’d taken it more seriously when I started seeing “business closed due to illness” signs popping up.
In the end, though, my decisions were my own. At some level, I figured — being so close to the end of my trip, and having been fortunate so far — I could probably skate on through without too much worry. I thought to myself, “I haven’t had it yet, so who knows? Maybe I just won’t get it.”
I was wrong.
Fortunately, I was fully vaccinated. In fact, I had gotten my second booster shortly before this trip (which might be what spared me until now). Especially after that first night, my symptoms were not bad at all. I ran a slight fever for a couple of days; I had a stuffy nose and a sore throat; I was tired, but not even what I’d call “fatigued.” I would rank it merely as a mid-level cold — far from the worst cold I’ve had. And it was certainly not the sickest I’ve been on a trip to Europe. The only thing that made it remotely unusual was knowing it was COVID.
In fact, I found myself thinking, “This is the reason we all put our lives on hold for a year and a half? This is why nobody could travel for so long?”
But then I’d remind myself that people of my age and general health were dying at alarming rates in those early days of the pandemic. And I felt extremely grateful for those miraculous vaccines. On four separate occasions over the past year, I’ve trained my body what to do in case this happened. I gave my immune system clear instructions and ran it through drills for exactly this eventuality. And so, when the real thing hit…it knew what to do, and it dealt with it admirably.
(I am aware that some of the newer variants do a better job of escaping the old vaccines. This is why we’re starting to hear about potential boosters for this fall. In any event, I was very glad for whatever protection my vaccinations gave me. )
I’ve heard some people say, “I got fully vaccinated and I still got COVID! Obviously, the vaccines don’t work.”
This thought never crossed my mind. Nobody every said that the vaccines guaranteed we’d never get COVID. Rather, we’ve been told all along that the vaccines make COVID less dangerous, drastically reducing severity and hospitalizations. And on that count, they’ve been a smashing success — including for me personally.
As for being stuck in that hotel room…to be honest, it wasn’t so terrible. It was plenty comfortable, with a fun view over the train station’s glass canopy. Having an excuse to take it easy, at the end of a long and demanding research trip, was weirdly welcome. I’d work on finishing up my guidebook writing as long as my energy held out…then I’d reward myself by binging some TV.
I consider British television an important cultural experience. Usually when I’m in Britain, I’m working nonstop, so at best I have the TV on in the background. But COVID let me settle in and enjoy some shows I’d only flipped past before.
(Related: I am bewildered that no American television production company has managed to properly adapt the wonderful show Gogglebox — in which ordinary, everyday Brits from various walks of life are recorded in their living rooms, watching and discussing TV shows — for the American audience. They attempted a “celebrity” version, which misses the point, and predictably flopped. Come on, America. We can do this!)
Fortunately, the hotel was able to extend my stay in the same room. They told me I was lucky, in a way: Scotland is packed to the gills, and it’s hard to find a room. But because of the ongoing rail strike, they had several cancellations.
If you’re going to be sick anywhere, try to be sick in Glasgow — where people are simply wonderful and kind and easy to talk to. I notified the reception desk I had tested positive to make sure nobody would enter my room and unwittingly expose themselves. The receptionist said, “So sorry to hear that. But it’s not surprising. I just recovered from it myself last week!” They took it in stride and told me they’d sanitize my room with extra vigor when I checked out.
I’d venture out of my room once or twice a day, taking short walks for my sanity. Each time I’d strap on my N95 the entire time and sanitize my hands like crazy before and after I touched anything. (I even shaved my scraggly beard, just to encourage a tighter mask fit.) For food, I’d run into the ubiquitous corner grocery stores, grab a few items, use the “touchless” self-checkout stand, and be on my way as quickly as possible.
On a couple of occasions, I ordered food in a restaurant, then waited outside while it was being prepared. Often, while standing out there in my mask, I’d be passed by multiple unmasked people who were hacking, coughing, snuffling, and sneezing. Given the high caseloads, it’s a certainty that at least some of these people had COVID…but, unlike me, were doing nothing to avoid spreading it.
And that leads to a question I asked myself again and again as I was waiting out this nasty bug: Is it somehow old-fashioned or deluded to be so worried about spreading COVID? Are we beyond that now? Should we really be treating it as “just a cold,” and stop taking extreme precautions…like the ones I was taking?
I’m sure that day will come. Personally, I don’t think we’re there quite yet. I know we’re fed up with the disruption to our lives. (Believe me — after this trip, I speak from experience.) But COVID remains a dangerous virus that can have devastating long-term consequences. To this day, a 9/11’s worth of Americans are still dying of COVID about every two weeks. For those of us privileged enough to be generally healthy and fully vaccinated and boosted, COVID is usually just a nuisance. But for a lot of people, COVID could be a huge problem.
And that’s really the frustrating part about COVID. It’s not going out with a bang. It’s trailing off with a whimper. At what point will we be able to totally forget about COVID — just truly not worry about it anymore? Probably never. Maybe it’s like terrorism after 9/11: Gradually, the constant fear and vigilance will fade…but some element of it will always be with us.
In the interim, for me, it’s too early to throw caution entirely to the wind. Yes, I’m personally more willing now to lower my guard and take a few more chances. But when we take those chances, we have to be prepared for the consequences.
And I believe we need to respect others who are trying to make their own choices. If I got on the plane with a 100-degree fever and an active case of COVID, I would be robbing my seatmate of that choice. Maybe they wouldn’t care; perhaps that person would be part of the fast-growing population who’ve decided that getting COVID is a reasonable tradeoff for doing as they please. (Heck, maybe I’d be sitting next to someone nursing their own COVID fever.) But it could just as well be someone with good reasons to expect others to have their back. I think that person deserves my consideration…even if it causes me some inconvenience. (Then again, I’m also someone who never reclines my seat back. But that’s a whole other blog post…)
After what felt like an eternity in that little hotel room, I had reached the CDC-recommended five-day isolation period. More important, my symptoms had almost entirely resolved, and I had not run a fever in nearly three days. I was able to book a last-minute flight back to Seattle. So I got up, packed my bag, unwrapped and strapped on a brand-new N95 (which I would barely take off for the next 18 hours)…and headed to the airport.
Boarding my flight in Glasgow, I did a little math. My plane had about 180 seats. If one in eighteen people in Scotland had COVID at that moment, there were likely at least ten active cases on that plane. I saw only about a dozen people who, like me, were wearing masks. Which means there were almost certainly unmasked COVID cases on that flight. (And remember that masks — especially when worn by just one person — are far from a guarantee of safety. They are just one layer in what should be a stacking series of protections.)
Allow me to editorialize for a moment. (I think I’ve earned it.) Even though I postponed my trip voluntarily, I understand the need to lift the testing requirement to re-enter the US. But not requiring tests makes far less sense when masking on board planes is optional.
After two and a half years of struggling with this virus, we know of two things that are unequivocally, demonstrably effective in slowing the spread and reducing the impact of COVID: vaccinations and masking. As we “get back to normal” on so many fronts — and, predictably, cases are surging — how many COVID cases are getting on planes these days without masks?
Failing a mask mandate, we can’t control whether other people wear masks (even if they’re hacking and coughing the whole way across the Atlantic). But you can control whether you wear one. Assuming you still care about not wanting to get COVID — or, perhaps, unwittingly spread it to someone else — mask up on board. These days, not wearing a mask on a flight is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets.
During my layover, I was fortunate to find a nearly deserted concourse. I sat alone and was able to take off my mask for a few minutes to eat and drink. I am aware that air circulation and filtration during a flight helps reduce the spread of COVID. But other aspects of air travel — including waiting in a crowded, unventilated jetway — are more risky. So I tried to be one of the last people to board the plane.
My connecting flight — much longer, at over seven hours — was the one that worried me. Fortunately, everyone within two seats of me, in every direction, wore their mask the entire time. That was a relief. And I kept my mask securely in place for the duration of the flight (other than occasionally sneaking into the bathroom to gobble a snack or blow my nose).
Landing in Seattle, I felt confident I’d made the right decision by delaying my return. And I have to say…it was very, very good to be home.
Rick Steves likes to say that our job as travel writers is making mistakes so you don’t have to. His favorite example is losing your travelers’ checks. But I suppose catching COVID is more timely. And, much as I deeply regret being your guinea pig…is there anything you can you learn from my COVID experience?
First, if you want to travel but still really don’t want to get COVID, don’t let your guard down. It’s so tempting to give in to social pressure and take off that mask. Or to have a nice, relaxed meal in a (crowded) restaurant. But if you want to keep your level of risk to a minimum, prepare yourself mentally to stick to your “good behavior”…even if it means you’re flying in the face of current social norms.
Another lesson: This was a reality check that these days, nothing prevents someone with COVID from traveling however they like. (I can attest to this, because I came very close to being that person.) You should assume that there are active, contagious, unmasked COVID cases on any plane (or train, or bus) you board. Assuming you still care about not wanting to catch COVID, this demands scrupulous masking with high-quality masks. Don’t mess around with cloth or surgical masks: Get and use a medical-grade N95 (or, failing that, a KN95 or equivalent). As you’ll be surrounded by more and more unmasked people, now is the time to up your mask game…not lower it.
Something that I take to heart now — more than ever before — is really making the effort to understand the current risk in the place you’re visiting. Had I bothered to pay more careful attention when I started hearing that “cases were going up,” I might have better understood how dire the circumstances were becoming, and adjusted my behavior accordingly. When you’re trying to enjoy a vacation, assessing current caseloads is far from “fun.” But it matters. And it can help you decide when it’s probably OK to go ahead and have a nice meal in a restaurant…or when you need to hunker down and stay outside.
Finally, if you do get COVID, I hope you’ll follow my example and do your best to think about your impact on others. I was determined to be the final link in this particular chain of the virus. I took all reasonable (and, some might say, unreasonable) precautions to avoid exposing other people when I knew I would be at my most contagious.
Having been though that decision-making process, however, I have a new empathy for people who might make the opposite choice, and get on that plane despite having COVID. It’s a tough call, and these days, we are essentially on our own.
In my case, I kept coming back to what I have been saying since day one of the pandemic: The only way through this is by looking out for each other…even when it’s inconvenient, or expensive, or frustrating. Or, try this rule of thumb: If I were healthy, would I want to be sitting next to me on that plane?