Flying With Covid

January 18th, 2023
covid-19, kids
I flew out to CA for a gig this weekend, and two of my kids came along. We got into SFO late Thursday night, drove to San Jose to sleep, and got to the gig on Friday. We took rapid tests, all negative. A late night, and the kids fell asleep backstage in the keyboard case:

Saturday morning one was mostly fine, but the other was sleepy ("jet lag"). She stayed sleepy all day, napping more backstage, and she wasn't eating much ("different food than she usually eats"). After choosing what food we should get for dinner she wouldn't eat it and was cranky ("seems more 'sick' than 'jet lag'"). Another rapid test [1] immediate positive:

So I'm 3,000 miles from home with two kids, one of which has the contagious disease everyone's spent the last three years avoiding. We're scheduled to check out by noon tomorrow, drive back to SFO, and take a red-eye home. What do I do?

Two options:

  • Isolate in place.
  • Fly home anyway.

Earlier in the pandemic this would have been a clear choice: isolate in place. It was required by public health order, and especially before vaccination traveling would have been too much risk to others and contribution to pandemic spread.

On the other hand, pre-covid I think almost everyone would have gone home. If you read advice it was mostly about how to decide whether to cancel a vacation or how to keep a sick kid comfortable on a plane. While there's some "if you're sick, don't fly", the examples were whether to begin a trip, not whether to return home. Discussion of "well enough to fly" was about whether you were up to it, not about risk to others. And of course there's no discussion of when you should wear a mask to protect others in the terminal or on the plane.

At this point, however, we are partway through a transition to treating covid as a normal disease. While the CDC recommendation is still not to fly, this was also what they recommended for people with similar illness pre-covid, and they recommend other things that most people aren't doing like masking when local covid levels are high. Airlines are back to charging change fees even with a positive test.

Isolating in place is at least four more days in CA, more if someone else gets sick (which did happen). Maybe six days in expectation? With flight change fees ($300), rental car extension ($400), and more days in the hotel ($600) this is $1,300+. Possibly we need a second room ($600) to separate the sick and well. Then there's dealing with food (probably delivery, more money) and work (with my wrist and neck issues this would need a more ergonomic setup than a laptop on a desk, so either more money or not working). It's possible, we could do it if we had to, but it's a lot.

I decided we'd fly home. We stayed as far away from others as possible in the terminals and kept our (K)N95s on the whole time—normally I let the kids take their masks off on the plane once the HEPA-filtered air is running and I've adjusted their blowers to 'full'. We got home Monday morning, and have been isolating since, including from each other.

Was this the right choice? I still don't know. I don't want to be a chump who expends inordinate effort to follow guidelines strictly when most of society has moved on, but there are also people still working very hard not to get covid who risk serious consequences if they were to get sick. [2] I'm not sure how to balance these, and the decision to come home rather than take on the logistics of isolating with kids in a far-off hotel was in part a selfish one. I'm writing this up not to encourage or discourage similar choices but to walk through how I was thinking about it and humanize a choice I expect some of you think was reckless and inconsiderate.

[1] There was nothing that required us to test here. If you'd told me in advance "if you get a positive you must isolate in place, but you can choose not to test" I likely would have chosen to wait to test until we were home, taking the same precautions described above until then.

[2] A rough calculation on the risk to others: imagine the person right in front of us on the plane is high risk, perhaps due to age, and really needs to not get sick. They're boosted and wearing an N95 to reduce their risk, but they're also three feet from someone with covid for five hours. How likely are we to get them sick? Using numbers from microcovid (which is generally much less useful than it was, but the best we have) I get that the risk of them catching covid is about 0.04% (390 microcovids).

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