How to quarantine safely during the COVID pandemic

All around the world, expats are stranded–some in countries they call home and some in places they were just visiting. Now, many are forced to repatriate–because of a risk assessment, expiring visas, inhospitality, and more. Unfortunately, while you can reduce your risk of infeciton while traveling, that’s not the only risk you face: many are now forced to quarantine in a hotel for 14-35 days, depending where you go. So how can you keep yourself safe while in a hotel quarantine?

It’s a real question. My doctor friend made the disturbing observation that a quarantine in a hotel is more like being in a cruise ship or dorm room than in a medical isolation ward. And just in case you’ve not been tracking what’s happened with COVID-19 on cruise ships and dormitories, its not pretty. Yet a hotel quarantine will be nearly identical: densely packed populations, shared air circulation, communal corridors, centrally-prepared food, and more. The hotel staff is aware of these risks–here’s a few photos taken by expat friends of mine as they entered hotel quarantines:

Now, these are high-risk quarantines and yours may be lower risk–but the reality is that you don’t really know the risk level, so it’s wise to be prepared for any situation before you travel. My family and I will likely be forced to hotel quarantine in a few weeks, so here’s our plan to reduce our risk:

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Our plan to reduce our risk of infection while traveling during the COVID pandemic

Maybe you’re in a major city and decided to head out; maybe you’re overseas and your visa ran out; or maybe you’re traveling to see a loved one in an emergency situation. Whatever it is, you’ve calculated your risk and decided that going is better than staying. Now, how do you do that safely?

My family faced is now facing this exact situation, as we our vis is about to expire, most likely requiring us to return to the US. We face the prospect of 45+ hours traveling, by taxi, bus, train, and three separate airplanes, putting us in shared space with tens of thousands of people, any of whom could have COVID-19. I spent several days learning from experts and doctors so that I can keep my family safe and want to share my plan with you in case you also need to travel and to welcome your feedback of how we can be better prepared!

To put this advice in context, first just observe how airport staff are attired for their own protection:

Now consider that if you’re traveling by plane, you’ll be in the exact same environment as the staff. Their length of exposure risk may be higher depending on crowd density and duration of their shift v. your travel time, but you face the same risk of exposure from the same people that they do. It thus behooves you to travel very carefully to reduce your risk of exposure. Here’s 11 ways we plan to to reduce our risk of exposure to COVID-19 while traveling:

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COVID: To go or stay? A guide toward assessing risk

As COVID reached my family’s city, the US State Department issued dire warnings to its citizens and we saw dozens and dozens of ex-pats flee our city. We faced the agonizing decision whether to leave our home, family, and friends, or to stay. You may face that same decision–perhaps returning to your home country, perhaps going to a different part of the country. Such a decision is intensely personal and depends on a multitude of factors that are hard to sort through–made even harder by fear or forced pressure of making a decision before exit routes are cut off.

I know that fear and concern that you face and I want to give you a 4-part paradigm that can help you more comprehensively assess your risk–and in so doing, explain part of why we stayed even as many others fled.

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