Latvia Robot COVID test

Travel in the Time of COVID

The number one rule of blog writing for me is to keep it evergreen, meaning the topic always feels current and relatable. So why am I writing about vaccines, travel, and COVID tests? Because especially for those of us who are 60+ (okay, 70+), vaccines will be our new normal for the foreseeable future. By which I mean I can’t remember most of last week so seeing into the future is beyond my bandwidth.


The phone call came in late June. My daughter, a school educator, could not get away with her two kids and wanted me to come to them for a summer visit. Why not? Small caveat: She lived outside of Riga, Latvia. I booked my flights that day for the last week of June. Easy-peasy.

Hold on buck-o, not that fast. A quick read through the Latvian Embassy pages on COVID protocol noted that all European Union (EU) countries were welcome, but not so much Americans. Yup, the United States was listed as a third tier/third world country because we do not have universal healthcare and our numbers were skyrocketing. And yeah, there are lots of folks who will wear shoes and shirts in public places per the health department, but not masks. So, I had to wait for the US to have fewer deaths per capita, per day.

If you travel, you get vaccinated. No one in other lands wants to hear about your exemptions or freedoms. In Europe you are not free to infect others. Period. I was vaccinated in January/February, so no problem. Except all EU countries decided per country when and how they would let in visitors. Latvia was waiting for a software update to allow vaccinated Americans with a negative COVID test to get a one-time COVID passport entry QR code (that square bar code type thingy). My flight was to leave June 25th. The software was not going live until July 1st. Okay, I rebooked my flight for July 4th.

The website went up and they wanted to know if I had a negative COVID test in hand. I did not. I could not in fact get one until earliest two days before the flight and result returns vary (the PCR 72-hour test needed to be valid not only when I left, but when I arrived in Frankfurt to change planes). Then there is the 24-hour test which if I took it at 10 am might give me the results by 10 pm when I boarded the plane. Oh, and did I mention that in my neck of the woods you cannot get a COVID test unless you have symptoms. I was told on the QT by a nurse never to mention a need for a test for work or travel. So basically, if you don’t want to wait at the airport for four extra hours and pay $350 you have to feign a symptom to get a test. No, I could not buy a COVID test anywhere in my county that went through a lab. Home tests are not valid at airports.

Now here comes the word math problem. (Never mind the moral call of whether or not to feign symptoms. Lucky for me I have allergies with ongoing symptoms of coughing, sneezing and red eyes.) Do I get a test 72 hours ahead hoping my results come back in time for my flight? Do I take the 24-hour test on the way to the airport? Where can I print that? The airport? If I have to wait until the day of travel (mind you it takes two and a half hours to get to the airport) to get the results before I can get my Latvian QR code, where will I print out the code? Or can I trust myself to have it on my phone and be able to find it when needed? (That part’s easy. No, I cannot trust me or my phone.) FYI: Both tests (72/24 hour) start the count down when they send you the test results, not when you took it. Put that down as one point in your favor in this equation.

My daughter coached me to fill out the form as if I had a negative test in hand. I could not print it out until three days before my flight. I did that at midnight and of course misspelled a few things and I was not allowed to redo it. I was terrified that they would make me turn around because I used a lower case initial for my middle name which did not match my passport. In the end, all anyone wanted to see was the 72-hour PCR negative COVID test results. Only one check point of many asked to see my QR code and vaccine card.

Coming home from Latvia to the States? I went online paid $35. Went to a grocery store eight blocks from where I stayed. Went to a robotic vending machine. Showed my code to the robot. It took down a box with a test tube and dispensed it.  I pulled out a test tube with my name and code already on it. I spit into the tube. Put the stopper back on, placed it in the box. I pushed the box back into the machine and watched the robot (actually just an arm) toss my box into a pick-up bin. It went to a medical lab overnight. My results were online within 12 hours.

Why, actually, can we not have a simple system like that in America? You want a test; you get a test. Period.

Sally Franz and her third husband live on the Olympic Peninsula. She has two daughters, a stepson, and three grandchildren. Sally is the author of several humor books including Scrambled Leggs: A Snarky Tale of Hospital Hooey and The Baby Boomer’s Guide to Menopause

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