COVID-19 and travelling overseas from Australia: What happens if you catch the virus?

It's a traveller's worst nightmare, isn't it? Bad enough to get sick with COVID-19 when you're home, but when you're far away? If you're travelling offshore while the pandemic still rages you need a plan, and there are some simple ways to help you stay healthy and safe.

What should I do if I'm diagnosed with COVID-19

You'll need to abide by whatever rules apply so first, call the nearest Australian diplomatic mission. They probably can't do anything but they can tell you what you need to do. If your condition worsens, consular staff can tell you who to call, or do it for you in an emergency. You will certainly need to inform the city or regional health authorities. Based on advice from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for most adults, infection, isolation and precautions can be discontinued 10 days after symptom onset. You're not going anywhere for at least those 10 days, and possibly longer if you're still suffering the aftereffects.

Does a COVID-19 diagnosis mean quarantine?

Self-isolation is more likely, but quarantine is possible depending on where you are. The difference is quarantine is more rigidly supervised. If the requirement is for self-isolation and you don't have friends or family who will accommodate you that could mean finding a hotel that will let you in. In Spain's Valencia region for example, some hotels have self-isolation rooms for visitors with COVID-19. Expect room service meals, no cleaning service for your room and no contact with anyone.

If you're travelling with a partner or a family, as close contacts they will probably be required to self-isolate with you regardless of any test result. The time frame varies but 10-14 days of isolation is typical. Other countries have government-managed quarantine facilities. The cost is down to you and the penalty for breaking self-isolation can be enormous – up to €30,000 in the case of Spain.

Will travel insurance bail me out?

Almost certainly not. With few exceptions, travel insurance policies issued in Australia will not cover you for any expenses incurred if you fall sick with COVID-19 while in a country with a 'Do Not Travel Alert' issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The only country that does not have a DFAT 'Do Not Travel' alert is New Zealand, and therefore travel to any other country means you're on your own if you contract COVID-19.

Travel insurance with COVID-19 cover is available, and used by a few professionals whose work requires them to travel, such as medical specialists and foreign aid workers, but it comes at a stiff price. The government's travel alerts will change as the world comes to grips with the coronavirus but DFAT suffers from a surfeit of caution and past experience suggests the department will not hurry to relax its travel advice. Australia is the only country that applies its highest level advisory to every country bar one. By comparison, the US Department of State applies the same warning to a little over half of all countries.

What if I test positive overseas?

Catching the virus when you're away from home is bad enough, but you might continue to return a positive PCR test long after you've recovered, and that's a problem. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, you might test positive for up to three months after recovery, and Australia requires returnees to show a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before the flight departs to bring you home. The reason for the positive PCR result is this test detects the presence of the virus's genetic material. That material can hang around in your body long after you're recovered and no longer contagious, a false positive. That's particularly worrying if you've contracted the virus but were asymptomatic. You might not even realise you were positive until you take a PCR test a couple of days before returning to Australia.

However, a positive PCR test doesn't mean you'll be stranded overseas until you can produce a negative test result. On that score you can rest easy because the government's Safe Air Travel Team has a pathway to get you back home. If you're overseas and you've contracted COVID-19 and your PCR test result continues positive, you can re-enter Australia if you provide your positive COVID-19 test result taken in the past 72 hours and a medical certificate from a doctor. The medical certificate must clearly state that at least 14 days have passed since the onset of symptoms, or from the initial positive PCR test result if you're asymptomatic. It must also state there has been clinical resolution of fever and respiratory symptoms of the acute illness for the previous 72 hours and that you have previously had COVID-19 but are now recovered and not considered to be infectious.

You would also need to alert your airline that you are medically cleared to travel to Australia, since check-in staff might not be aware that you are allowed to return home despite a positive PCR test.

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Best case scenario

You're in a European country that has a reciprocal health care agreement with Australia, either Belgium, Finland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, Slovenia, Sweden or the UK. The only other country with the same agreement is New Zealand. Australian passport holders with a Medicare card are entitled to essential medical care in those countries' public health system. Better still if you recover without the need for medical intervention and a subsequent PCR test is negative.

Worst case scenario

You're in a country with less than ideal medical facilities, you hadn't planned on a long stay and you've been put into supervised quarantine.

Avoiding COVID-19

There are several ways you can swing the odds in your favour, and number one is choosing your destination with care. That means a country with a robust medical system, low infection rates, a high percentage of the eligible population fully vaccinated and strict requirements surrounding mask-wearing and proof of vaccination status for entry to restaurants and cultural institutions.

To help you plan, the US Centers for Disease Control has a handy world map which gives you an instant snapshot of the severity of the COVID-19 situation in every country. There are some curious anomalies. India, Pakistan and Egypt are all rated "Level 2: COVID-19 Moderate" while Greece, Austria and Switzerland are all in the blood-red zone – "Level 4: COVID-19 Very High".

See also: PCR: What you need to know about compulsory COVID test for travellers

See also: Do you need to be vaccinated? Comparing each airline's new travel rules

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