My experience flying during the COVID-19 pandemic

Over the past week or so, we had been hearing news of countries having more travel restrictions and/or closing their borders. A few days before my flight from the Bay Area to Singapore, we heard that Singapore had added more travel restrictions, namely that from Monday, March 23rd, short-term visitors would not be allowed to enter or transit through Singapore. Even though my flight would arrive in Singapore on Tuesday, March 24th, the new restrictions didn’t affect me since I am a Singapore citizen, so I wasn’t overly concerned about it.

However, when I arrived at the San Francisco airport to check in, the United staff member initially told me that I couldn’t fly to Singapore. She said that Singapore had closed its borders, and they had had to turn back some people from checking in. I said that the restrictions didn’t apply to me since I was a Singapore citizen, but she said that the borders were completely closed. I felt puzzled and worried. Mostly worried, because my spouse and daughter had just dropped me off at the airport, and I might need a ride back home after all.

After some discussion with the United staff member, she checked with another colleague, who confirmed that I could fly back to Singapore. Phew, one crisis averted!

Going through the security checks was a breeze — there were no lines! Coincidentally, my friend’s husband and daughter were on the same flight as me (my friend and her son flew on an earlier flight). I had not met her husband before, but she told me to look out for a man with a very short stroller. I glanced around, and lo and behold, there he was, pushing and pulling a stroller. How did I know it was him, since I hadn’t seen him before? I snapped a photo and sent it to my friend for confirmation 😄

“Is that $husband and $daughter?” I asked my friend.

I walked over to say hello, keeping a moderately safe distance apart. We chatted a little before heading to the flight gate.

The flight itself was really nice. The plane was mostly empty, so I had a whole row to myself, allowing me to lay down mostly flat (with curled up legs) and sleep a fair amount. The flight attendants were also really nice.

As I came off the airplane, I saw that some of the ground staff had set up a temperature-taking station and they were checking if anyone had a fever. I had initially thought that they would use one of the thermographic monitors, but I guess they needed more precision in screening for fevers. They asked us to stand in a group to the left as they screened more people. Once they hit 10 people, they asked us to follow one of them. I thought that maybe they were bringing us directly to immigration, so that we don’t hang around the transit area and do some shopping.

It did seem that way at first — the pace was pretty quick and we were headed to the immigration area. We went down the one-way escalators, but instead of turning right to the immigration checkpoint, we turned left instead. There was now a medical station that we had to clear!

Waiting for the medical screening near the immigration checkpoint.

We were given some forms to fill out, about my travel history, any symptoms and so on. There was also a section on two temperature readings, and the medical staff would take our temperatures twice while we were waiting to see the doctor(s).

The first time they took my temperature, I was at 37.1C, which is just a little above the “normal” temperature of 36.9C, but usually fevers are defined to be around 37.5C. I figured that maybe I was feeling hot from wearing my cardigan (which I removed), and the mask over my face, so no biggie.

I continued filling in the forms. I had sneezed once that morning before the flight, and my throat felt a little itchy once on the plane. The more I thought about it, the itchier my throat felt — probably psychological but it’s hard to say! To be safe, I checked the box that I had experienced a “cough, sore throat, runny nose” in the last 14 days.

The doctor came and gave all us a little briefing about what was happening. We had been randomly selected for COVID-19 screening, and we would be undergoing a nose swab test that would be sent for analysis. She said that everyone would be taking the test, regardless of what we filled in the forms. If we were currently experiencing symptoms, then we might get directly sent to the hospital for screening instead. Otherwise, we would get the swab test results in around 24 hours, and would be notified via our cell phones. We would be given a 14-day stay-home notice, which we would have to abide by. If the COVID-19 test was positive, they would send an ambulance to pick us up at our residences to bring us to the hospital. After the briefing, she went into the medical screening area to prep for seeing us one by one.

Uh-oh. Should I not have checked that box on symptoms? I didn’t want to go to the hospital unnecessarily. My itchy throat was probably due to the dry air, right? In any case, I had already filled in the form, and I felt that it was safer to check the box even if I was unsure.

The nurses came back to take our temperatures for the second time. I was 37.4C. Uh-oh. Now I was starting to feel worried. Was I sick? Did I catch a cold, a flu, or COVID-19? The weird thing was, even though my temperature was slightly elevated, I was feeling warm, and I was sweating. Maybe it was the stress?

After a while, it was my turn to see the doctor. She asked a bunch of questions about my forms, and then took my temperature again. This time, it was 37.9C, which is most definitely in the “fever range”. She looked at me and informed me that with my symptoms, they couldn’t do the screening there, and I was going to have to go to the hospital.

I was escorted out of the screening area, and asked to sit in a separate area while they screened the rest of the people. The chairs in this area were spaced further apart, presumably because this was the “higher risk” area.

Sent to the “higher risk” area.

I had been keeping my spouse, my parents, and my in-laws informed of the screening process, and now it had become “I might have COVID-19 and I’m going to be sent to the hospital to be checked”. I thought back to what I had done before the flight. Oh no! I had chatted with my friend’s husband. I sent my friend a message, telling her what happened and feeling bad that maybe I had given her husband the virus.

As you can tell, I was feeling anxious. So anxious, in fact, that I started to tear a little. I tried to think of positives of the situation, and one thing I decided to do was to write this blog post and share my experience! That cheered me up quite a bit, as did practicing a technique I learned from this book that my therapist recommended to me a while back. Mental health is really important, so I think there’s value in sharing the technique that I’ve used a bunch of times. It’s called the “what-if” technique, and it involves tracing through my anxiety, assuming that the worst event that I can imagine does happen. What if it does happen? What if the worst possible thing from there then happens? And so on, until I reach some “final” state, that might not be as bad as it seems. The relief then propagates back up to the “initial” state and the anxiety lessens considerably, if not disappears.

Back to our regular programming 😁 Finally, all the people from our plane were screened. We waited for some more time, and eventually they said that the ambulance had arrived to transport us to the hospital. We were led to a back exit from the immigration area (presumably they already did the immigration clearance for us), and there was an ambulance waiting for us.

My first (and hopefully last!) ambulance ride.

I had never been in an ambulance before, and my only “experience” with ambulances was through watching Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 (which are great shows with excellent LGBTQ+ representation). It turns out that the ambulances in those shows are pretty similar to a real-life ambulance, which does make sense. In fact, medical shows are donating their medical supplies (like masks, gowns, and gloves) to actual medical institutions to help with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ambulance ride was very smooth. I was pleasantly surprised that vehicles on the road made way for the ambulance. Even when the traffic was heavy, I could tell that vehicles in front of the ambulance were trying to switch lanes to clear a path, so that was heartening! Even though my ride wasn’t very time-critical, some other ambulance might need those precious seconds to save lives.

Upon arriving at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), we were asked to alight the ambulance, and queue up for some pre-screening checks. There were helpful markers on the floor to denote a safe distance to stand apart from the person in front of you. The medical staff at the hospital took my blood pressure, temperature and heart rate. My temperature was down to 37.3C now, which was good I guess? We were then brought to a larger area, where there were many empty desks and chairs. There were many more medical staff in this area, and I was heartened to see that all of them were fully dressed in protective gear — hair nets, N95 masks, goggles, gloves, gowns, etc.

I was brought to one desk and chair, and they asked me to fill in another questionnaire. I snapped a selfie of myself at the desk, partly because this was an interesting experience, and partly because the desks were identical to the ones I had used in school long ago. However, one of the medical staff approached me and told me that I wasn’t allowed to take photos in there, and that I had to delete my photos, which I did. Thus, I don’t have any photos to share from this point on.

The main description I have of the medical staff at TTSH is “pleasant and professional”. All of them treated me nicely (even the one that told me not to take photos), and were polite in asking questions, and answering my questions.

Some of the wonderful medical staff at Tan Tock Seng hospital. Photo taken by my cousin who works at TTSH.

I was also given a bracelet to wear. It wasn’t the usual hospital bracelet with my name and ID on it. This also had some sort of device. I asked them what it was, and they said the device would track me as I moved around, and also kept track of which other patients I was in close proximity to. I wonder if that device was essentially running the app to help trace COVID-19 transmissions.

The doctors said I needed to do a chest x-ray and the nose swab. They gave me a gown to change into, and also gave me a rubber band and asked me to tie my hair up for the x-ray. This was a problem for me, because I don’t usually tie my hair and I’m pretty bad at tying hair (and braiding, as my daughter can attest to). I did what I could, and I think it was okay. When I got to the x-ray room, they gave me another rubber band and asked me to tie my hair higher up. Not sure of how to do that, I fumbled around, and eventually tied my newly-acquired ponytail to some hair on the top of my head. That works, right?

The x-ray itself was quick and painless, and they said I could change back into my regular clothes. Phew! Putting my clothes back on was a breeze, but untying my hair was not 😞 Some of my hair had gotten tangled with the rubber bands, not to mention that I didn’t quite know how to undo the rubber band without being able to see it. I tried pulling the rubber band to snap it, but to no avail. Finally, after pulling and prodding for some time, I finally got the rubber bands out, together with some of my hair.

I went back to my assigned desk and seat, and before long, another medical staff came to do the nose swab. She explained the procedure — she would stick a stick about 4–5 cm into one nostril, and then do the same with the other nostril. She said to try to relax, and not to cough and such during the procedure, even if it felt uncomfortable.

The procedure was most definitely uncomfortable. I don’t know how to describe the feeling exactly, since I had never felt any sensation that deep inside my nose before. I was supposed to relax, but I couldn’t and ended up clenching, well, everywhere. Finally, it was done. Nope, that was just the first nostril. The second time was probably worse than the first, if only because I knew what to expect and was dreading it. When she was done, my eyes were teary.

I felt a little bad, since I was supposed to relax but didn’t. However, a little later I saw them do the swab on another person nearby, who flinched a whole lot more than I did. Maybe I wasn’t so bad after all!

They gave me some documentation, a medical certificate for 7 days of hospitalization leave, and then said that I could head back home. They would contact me about the COVID-19 nose swab test results in 24 hours if it was positive, and up to 3 days later if it was negative. I’m not sure why there’s a difference in the timing depending on the test results, but perhaps if it’s negative, they wait some time before testing the swab from the other nostril.

With that, I exited the hospital (where they removed the bracelet). It was really nice that the consultations and tests were all covered by the government, so I didn’t have to worry about medical costs. A nurse at the hospital had said to get a receipt if I was taking a cab, so that they could trace the driver if my test ended up being positive. I think it’s great that they thought of that! I called a Grab home, and luckily, Grab already tracks the vehicle and driver in the automated email they send.

I was really relieved when I got back home, just to be safely back home. I didn’t have my check-in luggage bags with me, since I had been brought out of the airport in the ambulance. However, there wasn’t anything critical in my luggage bags, and I called United to see if they would figure out a plan to deliver my bags to me. Since I had a 14-day stay-home notice, I wasn’t allowed to leave my house to go to the airport to pick up my bags at this point. The United personnel said that if the luggage bags arrived on time, they wouldn’t arrange for a delivery. I then called SATS, which handles the ground logistics in Changi Airport. SATS arranged the pick-up and delivery of my bags, and I received them at home in a relatively short amount of time. Also, for the safety of the delivery person, they would not stay at the door after delivering the luggage. Instead, they gave me a call that the bags were outside, and then they went off. I waited for them to be out of sight and then brought my bags inside.

With that, my eventful day was mostly over. Less than two days later, I received a text message on my phone: my COVID-19 test result was negative, i.e., I don’t have the virus, phew!

I want to end this article with a huge thanks to all the great people working in healthcare. I am grateful for the work that you do, the lives you save, every day!

Proud mom, roboticist, software engineer.

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