Can I come home if I catch Covid-19 while travelling overseas?

Q) Help! I've tested positive while overseas and am fully vaccinated. Can I come back?

A) Catching Covid-19 while abroad can cause headaches in more ways than one.

From vaccinations to face masks, there are many ways we can greatly reduce the risk of catching Covid-19, but for now, no tactic guarantees 100 per cent protection.

If you do get unlucky abroad, here’s what to know.

What you need to get home

To board a flight to New Zealand, most travellers must prove they do not have Covid-19. This often takes the form of a pre-departure PCR, RT-PCR, RAT or LAMP test, each with their own specific deadlines and rules.

If you catch Covid-19, however, providing a negative test result is not immediately possible and according to government advice, you must wait until you have recovered before flying home.

How long after getting Covid-19 could I travel home?

The question then becomes, how long does this take? According to the Ministry of Health, mild cases are considered infectious from 48 hours before the onset of symptoms, 10 days after the onset of symptoms then 72 hours after symptoms have stopped. From the time you experience symptoms, this totals about 13 days.

Only a negative test or medical professional can officially announce you “recovered”, however, it’s safe to assume you would not obtain either for at least 10 days.

What should I do if I think I have Covid-19 while overseas?

Take a test
If you feel unwell while away, get a test as soon as possible. If you do have Covid-19, your pre-departure test (which is essential to board a return flight to New Zealand) will possibly show up positive and it’s better to know this days or weeks before departure rather than hours before your flight. Testing early will give you time to organise an alternative flight home, if necessary.

Follow the destination rules for positive cases
If you test positive for Covid-19, your immediate next step depends on the country you are in. Some destinations require positive cases to quarantine, self-isolate and/or take multiple tests, with penalties for those who don’t comply, so check with local authorities about what rules you need to follow.

Contact your travel insurer
Regardless of whether you are due to fly home soon or in a few weeks, it’s worth contacting your travel insurer to see what support you can get. Many insurers have policies that cover costs accrued if you or a travel partner contract Covid-19 while overseas and need medical care, new flights or other expenses, depending on the policy.

Organise accommodation and new flights
Depending on how soon your departing flight is, you may need to reschedule it and extend your accommodation booking. Alert whoever manages your accommodation (a family member, Airbnb host or hotel staff) and check if you can see out any isolation requirements there. In some cases, you may need to move accommodation.

Get your pre-departure test
When it comes time to take your return flight, you will need to return a negative Covid-19 pre-departure test, depending on your current destination.

Some people, however, can continue testing positive for days, weeks or even months after recovery. Therefore, the Ministry of Health accepts a positive pre-departure test if it is accompanied by a medical certificate stating the individual is no longer considered infectious with Covid-19. Both must be done no more than 48 hours before departure.

If you have tested positive in the past three months, Covid19.govt.nz even recommend you pre-emptively book a medical examination to take place right after taking your pre-departure test.

What if I don't need a pre-departure test?

Due to testing availability and quarantine requirements, New Zealand does not require pre-departure tests from returning travellers from 14 destinations including Fiji, Tonga, Cook Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu.

However, this does not mean you can board your flight while knowingly positive. Many of these countries have strict self-isolation rules, meaning those who test positive cannot leave their accommodation for a certain period or unless cleared by a doctor.

Although rescheduling a flight or extending a stay can be stressful, it’s important to not put fellow travellers and airline staff at risk if you have (or suspect you have) Covid-19.

The above information applies to fully-vaccinated travellers who would not qualify for special treatment e.g. humanitarian exemptions from high-risk countries. For more specific advice, contact the Ministry of Health or Healthline.

Have a travel-related question you think fellow travellers may be asking? Email [email protected] with ‘Ask the Travel Team’ in the subject line for a chance to have it answered in our next column.

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