‘It seemed like a safe plan’: Canadians who tested positive for COVID-19 abroad say they’re paying for it

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Brooklyn Neustaeter, CTVNews.ca Writer | Thursday, January 13, 2022

Canadians stuck abroad after testing positive for COVID-19 during a trip are warning others who are travelling during the Omicron wave to anticipate travel disruptions that could cost thousands of dollars and keep them away from home for much longer than expected.

While the ordeal can force the rescheduling of return flights, many Canadians say they also have to deal with the unexpected costs of additional accommodations, food and multiple PCR tests while isolating internationally.

Some also warn that the rules on how to return to Canada after testing positive are confusing and hard to navigate while abroad.

CTVNews.ca asked Canadians travelling abroad who tested positive and have been required to isolate at their own expense to share their stories. The responses were emailed to CTVNews.ca and have not all been independently verified.

Ontario resident Paula Bass has been stuck in Los Angeles for more than two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 29 following a trip to visit family.

According to the federal government, Canadians must wait until the 15th day after their positive test result to return to Canada to avoid being fined $5,000 per traveller (plus surcharges). Starting Jan. 15, Canadians must only wait until the 11th day after a positive test result. If they have symptoms without a positive result, they must wait until the symptoms have ended and have a valid negative pre-entry test result.

While Bass says the travel disruption allowed her to spend extra time with her 89-year-old mother, she says the ordeal cost her over US$3,000 that she had not anticipated for.

If everything goes well, Bass is expected to return to Toronto Thursday afternoon.

Brennan Watson, who lives in Milverton, Ont., says he tested positive for COVID-19 while visiting friends in Ireland over the holidays. He was supposed to return to Canada Dec. 29 but due to isolation requirements there, Watson is currently still in Ireland and is expected to return home on Friday.

While he was able to safely isolate at a friends’ place in Northern Ireland, he had to incur the cost of changing his flight, which was roughly an extra CA$2,000.

Florence Belair told CTVNews.ca that her father and brother came to visit her in Florida earlier this month. They took the mandatory PCR test for their return trip to Montreal, however, Belair says they did not receive their positive results until they were already on their connecting flight to Chicago.

“They are now stuck in Chicago, forced to isolate in quarantine until Jan. 24. They have to rebook their flight, as well as pay for a hotel room for the entire 12 days,” she said.

The federal government requires all travellers to take a molecular test within 72 hours of the scheduled departure time of their flight to Canada.

If they have a connecting flight, the test must be taken within 72 hours of the scheduled departure time of the last direct flight to Canada to avoid having to quarantine mid trip. Because of this, the government says Canadians may need to schedule the molecular test in their transit city.

BREAKING DOWN THE TRAVEL RULES

As of Dec. 21, Canada once again requires all incoming travellers, regardless of trip length or location, to provide proof of a pre-arrival negative molecular COVID-19 test in order to enter the country.

This means that all travellers coming back into Canada will have to take a molecular test in a country other than Canada, before their scheduled departure.

In addition to the pre-departure tests, the federal government has imposed randomized on-arrival testing requirements for air and land travellers coming from outside of Canada due to concerns over the Omicron variant.

This policy requires any travellers entering the country to be tested upon arrival—either at the airport or in some cases given a take-home test—and isolate until they receive a negative result, with the exception of travelling from the U.S.

On Dec. 15, the federal government reinstated its non-essential travel advisory, calling on all Canadians regardless of vaccination status to avoid international travel due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

“Many foreign governments are implementing strict travel restrictions due to spread of the Omicron variant and international transportation options may be limited. As a result, you may have difficulty returning to Canada, or may have to remain abroad for an indeterminate period,” the government warns in the advisory.

WHEN ONE TRAVELLER TESTS POSITIVE AND THE OTHER IS NEGATIVE

Rafael Luz and his wife travelled to New Haven, Connecticut to visit friends in December.

“Since the plan was easy, drive from Toronto to New Haven and back, it seemed like a safe plan, especially by avoiding airports and airplanes,” Luz said.

To return to Canada, they got PCR tests on Dec. 30. Luz said they received the results a few days later and found out that his wife was positive for COVID-19 and had to wait two weeks in order to return. However, Luz was negative.

Luz said he got two tests done on Jan. 3, one showing a negative result and the other, a positive one.

“With this, my wife would be able to return to Canada on the 12th, while I would only be able to return on the 16th,” he explained.

Luz said they are waiting until they are both cleared to return to Canada together. Since neither of them have symptoms and are both fully vaccinated, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control does not require them to quarantine while in New Haven unless they develop symptoms.

Sarah Paul of White Rock, B.C. is currently isolating with her 11-year-old son in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. They left, with eight other people, for a two-week holiday on Dec. 26.

“We were very careful while away, following all protocols and precautions,” Paul said. “We took our PCR tests as required, and everyone tested negative, except for our 11-year-old son.”

“We made the decision as a family that everyone, my husband and daughter included, would fly home, and that I would be the one to stay behind with my son and isolate,” she added.

Paul said they are “completely fine” and her son has now fully recovered, after only having “very mild symptoms of congestion and stomach ache.”

While Paul said they were aware that testing positive “was always a possibility,” she says the experience of having to sort out what to do afterwards while abroad has been “very stressful.”

If Canadians are symptom-free after testing positive abroad, the federal government states that they can provide proof of a positive COVID-19 molecular test  take two weeks prior to returning home, instead of a negative one.

However, Paul says she received an email from a North American company that specializes in medical tourism in Puerto Vallarta that said her son would need to be retested before leaving, and in the event that he tests positive again, he would need a doctor’s letter confirming that he is fully recovered.

Paul said she was told that the airline would require this before they’d allow him to board the flight. However, she says the airline seems “reluctant to answer these questions due to liability issues.”

“It is disorienting and unsettling to not really know what is expected of us, or to have an answer to give to our 11-year-old son, when he asks when he will be allowed to go home to Canada,” Paul said.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TRAVEL INSURANCE

Martin Firestone, president of Travel Secure, a Toronto-based travel insurance brokerage, told CTVNews.ca that Canadians can prepare for the possibility of staying abroad if they test positive for COVID-19 by purchasing an insurance policy that covers travel interruptions.

“The fear of testing positive and not being able to get back on a plane to head home is a serious concern,” Firestone said in a telephone interview Thursday, adding that insurers have recognized this and have adjusted policies accordingly.

Firestone said the average insurance policy with travel interruption will cover roughly $200 a day per person for 14 days to a maximum of $2,800, plus $500 towards the cost of purchasing new airfare.

While it may not seem like a lot of money, Firestone said it is “better than nothing.”

He noted that an insurance policy that includes trip interruption will cost approximately $50 to $75 a person, with the option to extend coverage should they need to stay longer at their destination to isolate at no additional cost.

In addition, Firestone said most insurance policies already cover medical expenses related to COVID-19 should someone become severely ill or need hospitalization abroad.

“That has been a savior for many people who had the foresight to buy it prior to going on their trip,” he said.

Firestone stressed the importance of travellers being “properly covered” if they plan to vacation during the Omicron wave.

“If you didn’t buy it, you have to cover all your expenses, buy new airfare home, and needless to say, that can add up to a tremendous expense depending on what resort you’re in,” he said.

Edited by CTVNews.ca producer Sonja Puzic