With those two words, my plan to return to the United States early the next morning was smashed. So were all the gigs and appointments I had scheduled for the upcoming week.
My mind flew like a jet maneuvered by a Top Gun aviator, racing through every possibility, but I kept returning to one question, “How is this possible?”
My husband and I were fully vaxxed and boosted. Yes, we had been travelling for the past two weeks for the first time since the pandemic was declared, but I was likely the most dedicated to wearing my KN95 mask anywhere except within the confines of our tour group, all of whom had been equally vaxxed and boosted.
OK, I had a cough, but it wasn’t any different from the bronchial cough I frequently get when overtired from travel or overtaxing my voice on too many consecutive gigs. Because I often acquire a cough that descends to my lungs when traveling, I carry prescription cough syrup with me and lots of lozenges.
How is it possible that the dread I’d felt all day, looking at the clock and knowing that at 3 we would both have an official COVID rapid test taken by a team coming to our hotel as a prerequisite (at that time) to flying home, was a premonition and not just a silly concern?
Two little lines confirmed: I was positive. Russ was not. The medico team’s sad eyes and immediate backing away from me charged my immediate refusal to believe the test was accurate.
I demanded a second test. Paid for it. The results were the same.
I hadn’t understood what “stunned silent” or “in shock” meant until that moment.
Within minutes, decisions had to be made and new restrictions had to be learned.
I am not the first person to be trapped by COVID while travelling, nor will I be the last. I am sharing what happened to me in hopes you will be better prepared if faced with this unexpected dilemma.
WE THOUGHT WE WERE PREPARED FOR ANY EVENTUALITY.
In the past seven years, Russ and I have travelled on quite a few tours, finding the stress of arranging travel, lodging, and booking tickets to wait-listed venues is exhausting. I’d had uneasy feelings about this trip weeks before coming but kept telling myself I was allowing this return to travel to rattle my confidence and comfort.
Because we had either cancelled booked trips or had them cancelled by the tour company due to COVID shutdowns and infection surges, Russ posed many questions to the tour company before we signed on the dotted line, such as “What help will you give us if one of us becomes ill?”
We bought their recommended high-end travel insurance plan from a reputable company, concerned if we needed to be evacuated or hospitalized. We had never bought travel insurance before, but the horror stories we’d heard from travelers with illness or injuries made this seem a necessity, not a whim. From examining various policy details, we knew that not all policies cover COVID. Some will fly you home. Some reimburse for travel and lodging. Some cover the additional food costs.
We had packed 10 test kits and enough KN95 and N95 masks to wear a new one each day and have plenty to spare. (In Italy where we were, flat surgical masks were not allowed in many places.)
I packed five extra days of my one medicine and my vitamins. Never have I packed any extra.
For the first time, I brought an extra housedress to wear in the hotel and two resistance bands so I could exercise my legs and arms even in a confined space. I did not pack a warm nightshirt for hanging around the room. Generally, European hotels don’t turn on their AC until later May and the rooms run warmer than those in the United States.
I had also packed backup facial and body cream, shampoo, and conditioner. I am allergic to ingredients contained in many toiletries, so using hotel toiletries is not an option unless I can read all the ingredients. As most nowadays don’t reveal their ingredients or the print is so tiny that I’d need a magnifier, I necessarily schlep more toiletries that the average traveler.
Usually, I carry a yellow lined pad to write notes as I do travel writing/blogging. This time I had a bound notebook with more space.
I had four paperback novels to read: my two and two I’d brought for Russ with the knowledge they were also ones I’d read. (No, I don’t read ebooks. I prefer a real book.)
Most importantly, my meticulously prepared husband whose career as a planner makes him ideal to think through a myriad of “what ifs” had paper copies of every one of our IDs, travel agenda, transportation, vaccination records etc… just in case our phones that also contained that info stopped working.
Who knew then how vital all that paperwork would become?
The knock on the door came no more than two minutes after the medico team had left. I stood there dumbfoundedly staring at the paper they’d handed me, clearly marked as “COVD positive”.
Our Tour Director stood in the hall just outside the door, dejectedly saying how sorry he was this had occurred, all while handing me a roll of plastic bags to put any towels, sheets, or trash into. I was to leave said bag outside my hotel room door. No one would take any personal laundry.
Reaction to me being positive was so swift that a woman returning to her room across from ours shrieked, “She has COVID. You have COVID!” We had no idea how she knew, but apparently the entire staff was already aware as well.
I was not able to leave the room until I self-tested negative for two consecutive days and then I could ask for the official test again. Only then would I even be permitted to venture out into the garden and pool area.
Our Tour Director and tour company immediately negotiated with the hotel for me to stay in this room. While we were still trying to wrap our heads around this explosion of our plans, Russ had to immediately go the hotel manager and pay for a week’s extended stay at the same rate our group was charged. If we had been on our own, that rate would have been much higher.
The seriousness of our situation was clear. We had to decide promptly what Russ should do: stay or go home. If he stayed and became COVID-positive, the quarantine date would reset. At that time, Italy was 10 days mandatory quarantine even if I tested negative as soon as four days. Another possibility was to pay for another room for him so he was nearby, but like the hotel staff, he wouldn’t be allowed to enter my room. Because he tested negative, we would not have been reimbursed for his stay.
The only real option was for him to go home the next morning as scheduled. He could then make phone calls, maintain our home front, and let people know what was happening.
Bless our Tour Director because he asked what I would need. He returned with two bottles of good local wine and eight large bottles of water. I am a constant water drinker, so having bottled water was crucial. Russ had bought some snacks and we still had some packets of nuts we had brought so I was good for noshing. He also left me Italian cash for testing or anything else I may need to purchase.
While Russ packed, we discussed who he would have to call to change my appointments. I didn’t want to make those calls long distance, knowing I’d be asked details and what date I wanted the rebooking etc. I had no certainty when I would be home.
It was at this time that Russ and I discovered neither of our phones was able to make calls. He’d gotten some spam calls that he didn’t answer, but I realized my phone had been silent. We’d been using What’s App successfully. I hadn’t thought about not getting calls because I had told my close friends, family, and agents I’d be away and to text or email. I have AT&T with an iphone and Russ has Verizon and an android.
I confess I am technologically challenged. I do not cope well with computer snafus or trying to figure out why the TV is suddenly not working. Before Russ went to the AT&T store at home, I had spent countless hours trying to text, email, and beg for help to anyone or on any site I thought applicable. This is the first time I’ve regretted not getting a bigger phone screen (but my mini fits so well in my pockets and purse).
This was the first time I had not bought a day call plan or an international package. In the past, I’ve paid for a month and rarely made a phone call. I thought it was just as easy to pay for one or two calls if needed. Maybe that’s what I needed for my phone to work?
When I live chatted with AT&T I was told my phone wasn’t eligible for day packages. What? I was repeatedly told on live chats that I had to call them from my iphone for support… a simple solution I did not have available! My daughter, who is much more technologically savvy than me tried to assist during a frenzied What’s App call. Nothing worked.
Until Russ went to the AT&T store, we didn’t realize that because I don’t list his name on my business account, he could ask all the questions he wanted, but he wasn’t authorized to procure me answers or a solution.
Neither of us had looked until then at my phone’s nonexistent service bars. No AT&T plan would have made that better. It was suggested I get a burner number from an app.
Two days later, after breaking down in frustrated sobs, I procured a burner number in case I needed to call someone who didn’t have What’s App.
I had no idea how long I’d be quarantined. Italy by law could keep you (at least then) for up to 21 days if one was still COVID+. I had been advised not to even bother testing until day 4 and then to do it daily. Meanwhile, there was no point in having the medical team come test me officially until I was sure I would be negative as it would cost 25E each time (same as we had paid initially). If I tested positive then, the count could restart.
MY DAYS IN QUARANTINE
Russ left. I was alone. I shook off the pressure of the dark solitude and assessed a game plan to fight off panic of the unknown.
Day 1 of being alone, although I guess officially this was already Day 2 of being COVID+.
I got out all my vitamins and one medical pill and sorted them out by days. I will have to skip one or two days in between to get through, even if I am here no longer than the mandatory quarantine.
Changed the bed sheets and towels. Gave me a fresh attitude that I was doing something useful.
Ordered breakfast. My choices are somewhat limited. With no idea how quick it might be, I don’t want anything hot that would be cold before I got it. I am not a big breakfast eater anyway, so tried to stay within my norm: Americano coffee (but added a shot of espresso to replicate the strength we drink at home), chopped mixed fruit, bread and butter. What I got was a mix of four small rolls, lots of jams, honey, and some dried packaged crackers similar to what I think Melba toast is. Whatever I don’t eat, will save to nibble on later.
Learned room service ended at 3:30. From that day forward, I would order a late lunch and spread it out. As emotionally wrought as I was, eating did not have a happy place in my stomach.
Repacked my carryon and large suitcase, shifting the few items I could wear comfortably or exercise in during my confinement.
My room had a door that led to a foot-wide ledge overlooking a small, twisting alleyway that ran alongside the residential apartments. My excitement of the day was seeing what laundry women (yes, always women) were hanging from a clothes-pinned line or over their balcony. When I was young and my dad was away on temporary duty assignments for the Air Force, we stayed with relatives in Coney Island. Everyone’s back yard had a clothesline with fresh-washed clothes and linen hanging limply or blowing with a breeze. The sight of laundry draped over balconies, clothes pinned to a wire extending from the balcony, or simply hung over a windowsill brought me nostalgic comfort.
Pulled out all my worn underwear and socks. Washed them out in the sink and laid them out on one of the large bath towels across part of the floor nearest the open “balcony” door.
Someone texted that now I could catch up on Netflix. I have no laptop… just my mini iphone. No Netflix, no Amazon Prime. There were three stations in English. Two were news stations (CNN global and BCC) and one of old shows I would never have watched before. I used the latter for white noise when trying to exercise or eating but couldn’t tolerate it for long.
Charged up my phone. Played words with friends. At least I can keep my mind sharp.
Pondered the resistance bands but that required more energy than I felt. The room floor was tile. Maybe I could lay down a bath towel and stretch?
At least I had my travel blog journal with lots of still-empty pages and several working pens. A silver lining, right?
Day 3 of isolation.
Ordered an omelet with smoked bacon inside, chopped mixed fruit salad, coffee. Food arrives and is set out on a standing tray outside my door. The sight of the runny scrambled eggs confirms that even in an omelet, egg dishes in Europe are not to my liking.
I slept heavy last night. Likely my prescription cough syrup helped. Still coughing and sound froggy. My tongue is thickly coated. A concern. What if I am sicker than first thought? What would I do if I needed a doctor or emergency care?
Received email from Russ. After many delays from plane repairs and foul weather, he was finally home.
Opened the door to my ledge for fresh air. All the clothes I handwashed and spread out on towels were still damp.
Russ said maybe 10% of people at Newark Airport wore a mask. We thought that seeing the casual attitude of tourists and Americans once in the U.S, we might not travel far from home for a very long time unless COVID had been controlled.
I knew our tour company had been immediately told of my status. They had had to cancel my flight and arrange for the hotel extended stay. So why did I not get a phone call from them or the insurance company asking if I needed a doctor or to even ask how I was doing?
Exercised for nearly an hour while listening to silly TV shows in English. Gave me a feeling of normalcy to at least hear English while stretching and using resistance bands. Felt like I was fighting for my health. Felt about 95% well though the cough wasn’t entirely gone, but already anxious about doing a self-test the next day.
Questions cross my mind unbidden. When I am negative officially, how soon can my flight be arranged? I discover later that a flight can be arranged within hours for the next day in nearly all cases. How would I get to the airport, an hour+ away? Answer: transportation is arranged. Russ and I would pay upfront and be reimbursed.
While I’m fretting over questions and no answers, Russ is not sleeping well. He’s calling the tour company and anyone else who may have an answer to get me home.
Washed my hair. Amazing how something so simple can humanize. Had a wonderful chicken Caesar salad, which had chunks of sauteed chicken and diced pieces of fried prosciutto. Saved some of the chicken to stuff into rolls I’d saved from breakfast. Drank a small glass of wine.
The staff here, from the housekeeper to the person taking my food order knows my name. All are polite and gentle. Having a guest with covid is apparently rare in this hotel. My sister-in-law, who follows Rick Steves’ posts, said he estimates 2% of his European participants get COVID and are delayed returning home.
Russ called with the emergency number for our tour company. They have What’s App so at least I can connect.
Although I spoke to Russ many times during the day, I could hear his fearful concerns and regret at leaving me behind, even if it was the right thing to do.
As I wasn’t tense enough, I find out a new gig i thought I’d be home for now needs many more psychics. I sent email to those whose emails I had but had to ask my friend to take over as lead. She and I have worked together as dancers and psychics. I had complete faith in her to handle this. Also learned another out-of-town gig had come through and now I couldn’t possibly be back in time. COVID repercussions was the financial gut punch that just kept giving.
Day 4 was one of discovery.
Russ learned from a tour company supervisor about a Certificate of Recovery if I am still positive by day 10. The explanation for the Certificate of Recovery varied by who was telling us or where we read about it. The one consistent factor was a doctor would need to sign off on it. One said we could go on a site and pay $75 and automatically get a certificate. Our tour company said a doctor would have to found locally or through the trip insurance. It was a glimmer of hope that there was an out to my confinement.
Ordered a simpler breakfast. My laundered items still damp. Placed them on a fresh towel and put on the ledge.
Russ is already planning for me to fly home. He repeatedly reminds me I have six new masks in my carryon. He provides my United Airlines’ frequent flyer number. I have my ID, global travel card, copies of health insurance cards, and money. He reminds me to use his credit card number to pay any additional hotel or transportation charges and to have a receipt from the hotel listing all expenses and payments. This becomes vital when applying for reimbursement from the travel insurance company.
I don’t have any indication I am going home anytime soon and his constant reminders of what to do and when to do it stress me out further. I am not feeling appreciative. I am frustrated, angry, frantic. Hear myself yelling to just stop! I can’t deal with anything more beyond my immediate control.
Once again, I beat myself up for not being more insistent about not going on this trip at this time.
By Day 5 my life in isolation has a routine. I pull up the blinds and crack open the door to my ledge for fresh air.
The sky has stayed gloriously blue. Humid, but not as bad a Florida. I force myself to listen for the humming of life from the residential neighborhood to remind me I am not as alone as it feels.
I order my simple breakfast and listen alternately to CNN and BBC to keep up on the world outside my hotel door.
Answer email. Change out sheets and linens every couple days.
Tried to do Jazzercise online routine playing on my iphone but the screen on my mini iphone is so small I can’t see clearly what is happening and move simultaneously. Also, floor is tile. I only have negative balance sneakers which are great for walking. Not so much for side-to-side movements.
I am eating less each day. The stress has made my stomach churn. This makes me nauseous and lightheaded. Can’t maintain my usual level of exercise.
Talk to Russ multiple times.
Order lunch. Stretch it out to be my dinner as well.
Read my one of my books.
Write notes in my journal.
Day 6, I spoke with my tour company supervisor. She was surprised no one from emergency services of travel insurance company has called. Said she would call them herself.
She also mentioned she and Russ had discussed my flights home. She thought I might have to fly out of Rome, many hours drive away, because they had more available flights than Naples. Also, as it was a larger airport, they might be more willing to accept a Certificate of Recovery.
Day 7, I speak to her again. She is now unhappy no one from travel insurance has yet to reach out. Promises that will happen.
It finally does in the evening. I have waited anxiously all day. The woman from the travel insurance company’s emergency services said I must send her photocopies of at least six documents. I may not be great with technology, but I take care of it. Thanked Russ for his insistence that we have paper copies of every one of the documents she wants. At no point has she asked if I was feeling better or needed a doctor.
I finally broke in and tell her that she had yet to ask what I need. I tell her I have one prescription that I had already been spreading out so I wouldn’t run out. I wasn’t going to die, but it does throw off my body’s regulation. Her answer was that I might need a doctor’s appointment to get that medicine and all the pharmacies where I am are closed for the night. She’ll check on the prescription and get back to me by morning. I never heard from her again.
Every day about 11:30 I do a self-test. I had read that it’s better to do a self-test late morning, early afternoon as results would be the most accurate. Never in my life have I wished for a Negative reaction. The double lines mock my prayer for the second line to vanish.
I want to go home. I repeat that as a mantra, imagining Dorothy clicking her red glitter shoes three times.
Day 8, the line earmarking COVID is fainter. Hope? I don’t want to tell anyone the line may be disappearing. I feel punky, out of sorts, and have little appetite.
The hotel manager called. The hotel is packed with guests and reservations. Would I consider moving to a smaller, inside room? No!
Our tour company supervisor with whom we’d been in close contact was heading off for a weekend with her family. She said she’d filled in the weekend worker with all our info. If I tested negative during the weekend, this woman would swiftly arrange my flight and transportation. By then, the supervisor realized Russ was right: leaving out of Naples, roughly an hour drive away, was a better option because there would only be one layover in Newark and then home. It was the same route Russ had taken.
Day 9, My hands literally shook as I took out the last COVID self-test I had left. Sweat dotted my forehead. Tears dripped unbidden down my cheeks. I simply couldn’t face having even the faintest line appearing. I had three different branded tests with me. Each was conducted a bit different, including the wait time for it to process. I held my breath as minutes ticked by. Never have 20 minutes passed so slowly. I forced myself away from watching. Worked on relaxing my breath. Finally, 20 minutes had lapsed.
No lines!! I was finally COVID-free. Called Russ immediately.
Then called the front desk. Send the medico team to do the official test. Within 15 minutes I had someone knocking on my door.
I passed. Got the official certificate indicating I was COVID-negative.
Immediately called the tour company. Within hours I had a flight home on the same route Russ had taken, originating in Naples. My eticket and info arrived shortly thereafter. Russ called and gave me firm advice on navigating Naples’ airport.
TIPS FOR THE FUTURE
Pack a thermometer. I’ve never taken one before, but I had no idea if I was running a fever.
Five extra days of medicine and my toiletries was not enough. COVID has not disappeared. Although we may not travel far again until things have calmed, I won’t ever take another international trip without 10 extra days of medicine and toiletries.
COVID is still surging across the world. Many areas are again requiring masks. Check up until you travel on the latest rules and regulations for that city or country.
Expect that something always goes awry. OK, that’s not a new lesson, but it seemed on this trip more than usual was askew. I won’t even share all that happened just trying to get out of the country with tighter airport security, faulty airport/airline equipment, bad signage, delays….
I made it home safely. That’s all that mattered.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of International Live Events Association and Meeting Professionals International and is now serving on the 2021-2022 MPI Global Advisory Board for Small Business Owners. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. Karen@KarenKuzsel.com; www.KarenKuzsel.com; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.