travel in Omicron time

In October, we made plans to visit daughter E, son-in-law L, granddaughters ABC and JG, and L’s parents with whom they live in London, UK for the holidays. I hadn’t shared much about our plans here for fear that we would have to cancel, as we did with a planned visit in November 2020. At the time we made our plans, vaccination rates and COVID rates looked amenable for travel for three people who had had three doses of Pfizer vaccine, due to our participation in the clinical trials.

And then, in November, the Omicron variant appeared.

Travel and testing policies changed. Everyone wanted to know how virulent it is, if vaccines are protective, how severe it is, where it is spreading – and they wanted to know right away. Unfortunately, science doesn’t work that way. It takes time to gather and analyze data.

It actually was to our advantage that there were several weeks before our trip for some preliminary conclusions to be discerned. Yes, Omicron is more transmissible than the very contagious Delta but tends to cause less severe disease and to run a shorter course. Vaccines were less effective than against other variants but having a booster greatly increased protection.

And Omicron was rapidly spreading almost everywhere.

My home state of New York in the US was experiencing a spike in Omicron on top of a spike in Delta. In London, Omicron was taking over with over 90% of new COVID cases caused by it.

Still, travel was open for vaccinated people to enter the UK, we had our required testing scheduled both in the US and the UK, and the UK had not imposed restrictions on gatherings in private homes, so we were good to go, scheduled to fly out of Newark on Monday night, Dec. 20.

On Thursday, Dec. 16, L tested positive for COVID. He had been testing at home every day before going to work in the schools and didn’t have symptoms. He immediately had a follow-up test with a medical facility to confirm, then went into isolation in a bedroom. He developed symptoms which were like having a bad cold, which seems more typical with Omicron. In accord with UK protocol, the adults in the house tested themselves every morning. If they were negative, they could go out for the day. The children would only need to be tested if they had symptoms.

Obviously, this was scary news a few days before our trip, but, being used to uncertainty by now, we decided to go ahead with our plans.

On Saturday morning, we did COVID tests at the local pharmacy. The results were supposed to be available by noon on Monday and our flights wasn’t until 10 PM, so no problem, right?

Except that they didn’t come. We headed to Newark airport, which is about three hours away, hoping to get a rapid test there, but the testing center closed early, so we waited for our results to come in. As it turned out, only mine came through in time, so I flew to Heathrow by myself. This was the first time I had ever flown internationally without being part of a group, but I managed, admittedly with a lot of helpful staff and fellow travellers who could probably tell that this silver-haired woman wasn’t quite up to snuff, especially after a sleepless night on a plane. E met me at the train station and helped me get settled – and do my COVID test that the UK required. I needed to stay in isolation until I got a negative result.

Meanwhile, B and T re-booked their flight for the next evening, stayed at a hotel overnight, and went to the airport bright and early to go to the rapid test center. They had finally gotten their negative results from the Saturday tests but, because they were now flying on Tuesday, that test was too old to meet the requirements. Fortunately, I was already checked in to the hotel so they could start their UK isolation/testing bit, too. I’m happy to say that the UK results came much more quickly, so we were out of isolation by the time we moved to our Airbnb in E’s neighborhood on Thursday.

When you are browsing through Airbnb’s site, you can’t see the exact address. We knew we were in the neighborhood, but were pleased to find out we are only about three blocks from their house. Given that we are trying to limit our exposure to crowds, it’s nice to just have a short walk between the two places. It’s also nice to have our own kitchen. We even have an enclosed back garden, although it’s been too rainy to use it.

We benefited from a change in UK policy. Instead of having to isolate for ten days, people are allowed to leave isolation sooner if they have two negative test 24 hours apart. This meant that L was able to get out of isolation in time to have Christmas Day together. (You can read about the menu here.)

In deference to the wild spread of Omicron, we are not going to church or other kinds of crowded venues, like museums, during this visit. We are pretty much going back and forth between the two houses. While B, T, and I and L’s parents were all boosted, E and L were scheduled to get their boosters on Sunday, three days after Larry tested positive. E’s COVID exposure delayed her getting a booster until Dec. 24; L can get his in several weeks. For the record, E and L were not negligent in scheduling their boosters. Rather, they were following the UK protocols, which are different than the US ones.

All of us are trying to be protective of ABC and JG, who are too young to be vaccinated. Realistically, B, T, and I also need to stay COVID-free to be able to travel back to the US in January. Fingers crossed that the travel and visiting policies stay stable so that there are no more glitches, delays, or restrictions.

But, hey, we’ve already shown we are flexible, if need be.

Author: Joanne Corey

Please come visit my eclectic blog, Top of JC's Mind. You can never be sure what you'll find!

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