Credit: 123rf

With borders opening up around the world, including Singapore’s, it’s time to ready those passports and scan for the best flight deals.

But here’s a word of caution for those planning to travel and have recently recovered from Covid-19 — be prepared that you may still test positive for the virus for weeks after recovery.

This may complicate matters if you’re going to countries such as Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia, which still require inbound travellers to comply with either a pre-departure or on-arrival Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, or both.

PCR tests can turn up positive long after the recovery period of seven days has passed.

Dr Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, associate professor of pathology, molecular and cell-based medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told NBC’s Today that one can still show Covid-19 positivity for weeks and even months after infection, noting that positive tests on PCR have been recorded for up to 60 days.

A research report published last year indicated a possibility that the RNA SARS-CoV-2 virus can integrate into the human genome and be picked up by PCR tests even months down the road.

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang from NUS’ Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health told Channel NewsAsia that a “significant proportion” of patients would be able to test positive three weeks after the onset of their illness.

One general practitioner we spoke to also told us that it is possible to test positive for Covid-19 on PCR tests after recovery, but was unable to give us specific details on the number of or longest duration that patients have remained positive.

According to healthcare group Minmed, PCR tests can continue to give a false positive result weeks after the patient is no longer infectious, as the person continues to shed the virus from the mucus lining.

I have a personal example to share. 

My husband, for one, tested PCR-positive close to five weeks after his initial infection in February, which we were not expecting. The PCR test was part of the mandatory pre-departure test that was needed to enter Thailand for our planned family trip in March. Pre-departure tests for travellers arriving in Thailand are no longer mandatory as of April 1.

As he had tested negative on his antigen rapid tests (ARTs) in the days before and after the PCR test and felt well, we did not think he had contracted Covid-19 again.

We were also caught in a bind because my husband did not see a doctor for his initial infection, which occurred during the surge in Omicron cases in early February. Then, those with mild symptoms were advised to recover at home, instead of overloading clinics.

It was later announced that infected persons could go to quick test centres (QTCs) or combined test centres (CTCs) to get their results on record.

It didn’t occur to us that he should get registered so as to be subjected to fewer travel restrictions in the future.

We were also not aware that travellers who have recorded an infection before their travel dates may be exempted from pre-departure Covid-19 tests in some countries, needing only to produce a recovery memo from a doctor. 

In the case of Singapore’s border control measures, fully-vaccinated inbound travellers who have recovered are exempted from pre-departure Covid-19 tests if their travel date is within 90 days of their last infection, as long as documentary proof is provided.

As of April 1, fully-vaccinated travellers to Singapore and children aged 12 and below will no longer need to go through Covid-19 testing on arrival, although pre-departure PCR or professionally-administered ART is still mandatory.

In my case, the turn of events caused a major disruption to our travel plans and we had to postpone our flights and accommodation.

As a result of his positive test, a notification from the Ministry of Health for him to isolate at home for 72 hours was also triggered, which essentially meant we would have missed our flight.

It is a deep regret, as that misstep came at some cost, not to mention disappointment. Thankfully, our airline allowed a one-time free reschedule of travel dates and our quarantine hotel in Thailand was able to accommodate the change as well. We were also able to rebook our travel insurance without penalty.

So now that borders are opening up, what happens if you decide to travel just after a Covid-19 infection?

Here are the steps that you should take

  1. Even if your symptoms are mild, go to a QTC or CTC to take a supervised ART and have your infection documented.
  2. The results should show up in your HealthHub medical records and can be used as proof of recovery for exemption from border measures.
  3. If you’ve seen a doctor for a recent infection but did not receive a recovery memo, check if your destination country requires one and if you’re able to obtain it.
  4. If you’ve recovered from Covid-19 but did not see a doctor, that’s where you might be in a pickle. It may be wise to take a PCR test as soon as possible to check if you’re still positive, especially if PCR testing is a requirement for countries that you’re travelling to. If you get a positive result, comply with the mandatory isolation requirements and get a recovery memo. If you’re negative, you may still have to undergo another PCR test prior to departure. As always, check the requirements of the country that you are flying to.
  5. If you have bought travel insurance and have to postpone your flight, let the insurance company know of the change as soon as possible before the commencement of the policy.

And if all is good on the health front and you’re cleared for travel, don’t forget to check the specific rules and restrictions for each country you’re traveling to. Combing the internet for the most updated information can be tiring and confusing, so be sure to use this handy travel guide created by The Straits Times. A simple tool that allows you to check on requirements for entry, just choose the country you’re travelling to in the drop down menu, and you’ll be shown the most updated information. Easy!

This article was first published in AsiaOne.