Travelling on a positive PCR test: How to jet away after recovering from COVID-19

Fully vaccinated Canadian travellers who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are feeling more confident about travelling internationally, but some are learning the hard way that they can test positive on a PCR test weeks or months after getting over their infection.

A Surrey woman and her husband who had booked a trip to India for a colleague’s wedding worried their positive rapid antigen test before Christmas could scuttle their plans to fly on Jan. 8. But they had minor symptoms and recovered quickly.

“I was positive, recovered, negative, and figured, ‘Hey, we are good to go,’” said Jacquie Baron. “It was quite a few weeks previous to when we were travelling, so I thought there were going to be no issues.”

But she and her husband both tested positive on a mandatory pre-flight PCR test, and had to cancel their trip to India at the last minute.

“Of course, we were very upset,” said Baron, who had no idea they could still test positive on a molecular test so long after recovering from COVID-19.

She also learned that because molecular tests can detect an old COVID infection, the Canadian government allows citizens to return without re-testing if they have a positive PCR test that’s between 11 and 180 days old. So she and her husband went to Mexico instead.

“COVID-free, but with a positive PCR test,” said Baron. “We were asked to see that positive PCR coming back from Mexico, and easy peasy, on the plane we got.”

The vast majority of British Columbians don’t qualify for government-funded PCR tests anymore. So Baron is recommending anyone who tests positive on an at-home rapid antigen test and wants to travel within the next six months pay for a private PCR test after their five-day COVID-19 isolation period is over.

“It’s worth going and getting a private test, having a positive test so you have no anxiety, no issues travelling,” said Baron.

While private tests can be expensive, travellers would have to pay for a PCR test before returning to Canada anyway, and having a previous positive test eliminates that requirement.

A doctor’s note will not suffice, said Vancouver family physician Dr. Anna Wolak.

“A lot of us are getting requests from patients saying, ‘I think I had COVID. I took a rapid test. I think its going to test positive on PCR. I need you to write me a note,’ but we can’t,” she said.

With a positive PCR test that allows her to return to Canada without re-testing until the summer, Baron is already planning another trip to Mexico with her family in May.

“I’ll be golden, my husband will be golden,” she said of their positive paperwork.

“The kids may not be because they haven’t had COVID. So hopefully they test negative coming back, or maybe even the restrictions would have been lifted.”