Research & Studies

Travelling in the Times of Covid-19 Pandemic (Part 2)

It gives a sort of hope!

By Daniel Brooks – research fellow at iASK

Daniel R. Brooks (Emeritus Professor, University of Toronto) Climate Change and Sustainable Societies – Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg (iASK)

In late December, I made my flight reservations to arrive in Budapest at the beginning of February to begin another fellowship stint at iASK. The same regulations that allowed me to work in the autumn (married to a Hungarian, coming to work) were still in place. By mid-January, circumstances began to change.

The week before I was to fly, I received a notification that airlines were beginning to require evidence of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before flying. This was a bit troubling because, at that time, testing facilities in the US were routinely taking 3-5 days to report results. As well, few operated on weekends, and I was scheduled to fly out on a Monday. Two weeks before my flight, I discovered that a local lab had set up an open-area testing facility in the Arts District of Asheville and was offering PCR results within 24-48 hours. They operated only during the week, but Friday was still within the 72-hour time frame. So, I duly made an appointment and arrived – as usual – half an hour early on Friday. I had heard horror stories about the nasal swabs, but the very large woman nurse who took my swabs was as deft could be – I felt no discomfort, much less pain. I was assured that the result would be sent by email to me within 48 hours, surely before my check-in time of 11 am Monday.

I wish I could say that the experience left me feeling excellent, but that was not the case. Two days previously, the airline had sent me an email saying that the regulations for flying into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport had changed. No longer were you required to have a negative PCR test 72 hours before departing, now it had to be 72 hours before arrival. For someone flying east from North America, this meant the loss of a day. I hoped that being caught over a weekend would give me a dispensation, but to be certain, I decided to sign up for a test at the local pharmacy that was doing drive-by PCR tests and which was saying that results we often in within 48 hours (more on that to come). I tried to register online and was informed I did not qualify (no medications, no medical issues, no exposure to infected people, no symptom). I went to the pharmacy and asked the pharmacist what to do – “Lie,” she told me, that’s what everyone does and no one does any follow-up. Duly noted, and an hour later I was registered as someone who had been in direct contact with a positive COVID case, had a cough, and had dangerously high blood pressure.

Friday has also brought an additional concern – the airline sent another email, warning that Amsterdam had upped the ante. In addition to a negative PCR result taken no more than 72 hours from arrival, one now also needed a RAPID Antigen test done no more than 4 hours before departure. No testing facilities existed at the large international Atlanta airport, so of course not at the tiny airport in Asheville. With the flight leaving at 1 pm, that meant I had to find a way to have a RAPID test done and results obtained by 9 am on Monday.

Saturday afternoon arrived and I drove to the pharmacy’s drive-by window where people can get their medications without having to come into the pharmacy. I was handed a bag full of various items, including a detailed description of what I was supposed to do to myself. My self-swabbing for nasal samples was not as wonderful as the one done by the nurse the day before, but I managed to get everything done, sealed and deposited in the appropriate container for lab

samples. One bit of good news was that, unlike the Friday test, which cost $150, the Saturday test was covered by Medicare (due no doubt to my precarious health).

I returned home fairly gloomy – I was certain the results from Saturday’s test would not arrive in time and feared the Friday test results – due Sunday – would turn out to have been too early. That evening, my spirits were lightened when the airline sent yet another email, this time saying that they had established RAPID antigen testing facilities in the airport, and I could have that done while waiting for my flight to Amsterdam. And for no charge. Things were beginning to look up.

Sunday was a day of packing and getting last-minute details done, along with constant checking of emails for the promised PCR results from the Friday test. Nothing. Maybe a last-minute reprieve on Monday morning, or possibly an email in Atlanta in the afternoon. But would they let me fly to Atlanta from Asheville without a PCR test, knowing I was connecting to Europe?

Monday morning – nothing. My eminently pragmatic Hungarian wife suggested I drive to the lab that did the Friday test. Finding that they opened at 9 am, I arrived at 8:55 and as soon as the doors opened, I walked up the receptionist and admitted I needed help. She checked the files and printed out the PCR test results (negative), with many apologies that they had not sent the results out. Back home by 9:30, but nothing from the Saturday test. An hour later we left for the airport. There, I was ticketed all the way to Budapest, told I could get the RAPID test in Atlanta and was not asked to show the PCR test. Aha, things were looking up.

I arrived in Atlanta 6 hours before my flight to Amsterdam and found out quickly that I had to wait 2 hours before getting in line for the RAPID test, which had to be done less than 4 hours before departure. So, I sat reading and checking emails, feeling more at ease all the time. Four hours before scheduled departure, I sauntered up to register for the RAPID test, only to be told that my PCR test was not valid, because it was done more than 72 hours before arrival in Amsterdam. After a phone call confirmed this, I was sent to another airline employee who crisply checked to see if they could get me to Budapest via Paris, which did not have the PCR test restrictions (at that time). No luck, the only KLM flight into Budapest originated in Amsterdam. I began to see re-booking fees, several nights in an expensive hotel at the airport, and figuring out in the morning how to find a lab to do the PCR test and hope it would arrive in time for the rebooked flight. The special airfare I had found was becoming more expensive by the minute. The airline employee yanked me out of my preoccupation, telling me to go through a particular set of doors that would get me out of the airport right at the taxi stand. I was to take a taxi to a clinic called A Vision 4 Hope – it was past their closing time, but the airline employee had called about me and they would stay open for me. I would get a Real-Time PCR test done and hopefully get back to the airport in time for the RAPID test. At this point, I had 3 hours before the gate would close and I would miss my flight.

At the taxi stand, I found a driver who did not know the clinic and could not find it with his GPS. My iPhone GPS system managed to get us there, after about 10 extra minutes of fumbling around. A Vision 4 Hope is a community-based non-profit organization devoted mostly to STD and HIV testing in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The taxi driver was a bit concerned about waiting, but I managed to convince him to wait. As soon as I opened the door of the clinic, a very professional receptionist asked if I was from the airline, then shoved the inevitable medical history forms at me to fill out, and finally charged my credit card $140. At this point, a nurse practitioner administered my third – and by far the most uncomfortable – nasal invasion of the past 4 days and handed it off to an MD for the test. I had barely had time to stop my eyes from watering when the PCR results were in my hands. A second person who had been sent by the airlines just had his results and we shared the cab back to the airport. I discovered that he was on his way to Copenhagen on a research fellowship at an international law institute, where he was helping prepare the documents for charging members of the Bush administration with war crimes. I told him about my work with climate change and emerging disease and we both wished each other luck, but never exchanged names.

Tumbling out of the cab back at the airport (add $60 to the $290 for 2 PCR tests), I managed to get through a security inspection and back to the RAPID station with an hour to go. More forms, another nasal swab (not the best, not the worst) and 30 minutes before boarding I had my PCR and RAPID test results – the RAPID test was free.

The flight was excellent – there were only 87 passengers so there was enough room for everyone to feel like they were in Business Class. We had the usual hour of turbulence south of Greenland and then meandered into Amsterdam on Tuesday at about 10:30, with a 2 pm connection to Budapest. At the gate, I was asked to show my PCR and RAPID test results, then I went to Passport Control, which was me and two bored young Passport Control officers. The usual 30-minute wait was 30 seconds, so suddenly I found myself with a lot of time. Although the airport was largely deserted a number of restaurants were open (and of course Duty Free) and I found an electrical outlet and began sending out emails and messages to family and friends. In due course, I wandered to the gate for Budapest. That flight was full, but everyone stayed masked up. Two hours after takeoff, I landed in Budapest, had my body temperature taken, showed my letter of invitation to work at iASK and my residence card along with my passport, and was waved through. I got my luggage and went into the arrivals area about 3 minutes before my middle stepson arrived – he figured he would be early. And less than an hour later I was at my wife’s house in Göd.

So, in the end, there was only a little drama and everything worked out okay. But that is not the real story. Let’s go back and let me fill in some details I left deliberately ambiguous before.

On Friday afternoon, the nurse practitioner who did my nasal swab so well was a large and extremely competent African-American woman. The pharmacist who told me how to get registered was a white woman. On Monday, the receptionist at the lab was a young Hispanic woman. The airline person at the RAPID testing site was a Hispanic woman, who spoke to her colleague in Spanish to confirm that my test was not valid, so as not to cause me any embarrassment (I did not tell her I spoke Spanish but I appreciated her sensibility). Her colleague who got me to the clinic was also a Hispanic woman. The taxi driver was Somali. The A Vision 4 Hope clinic was staffed entirely by African-Americans, from the receptionist to the MDs (the MD I dealt with was a young, fresh-out-of-Medical-School young man with dreadlocks and an African surname). And when I returned to the RAPID testing station in Atlanta, the person on duty then was a Pakistani man, who handed me off to a young African-American man, who handed me off to another Hispanic woman.

So, the real story of my trip is that a number of women, African-Americans, and first-generation immigrants in various combinations worked professionally, effectively and compassionately to make sure one Old White Guy made his flight. Sort of gives you hope.

Daniel R Brooks (USA–Canada 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019) is Professor Emeritus at University of Toronto, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and at the Linnaean Society of London and a senior visiting fellow at iASK.

Watch his talk HERE!

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