Virginia Advises Residents Returning From Abroad to Test, Offers At-Home Kits

Department of Health tracks arrivals and offers testing and quarantine guidance

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With vaccination numbers rising and COVID-19 cases across the capital region finally falling, many residents are beginning to return to pre-pandemic activities like traveling.

Nearly 30,000 Virginians have already returned from international trips this year, and Virginia's Department of Health has launched a new program to track their arrival and offer testing and quarantine guidance. 

"We wanted to reach as many people as we could to contain the spread of COVID," said VDH epidemiologist Amanda Touma.

Earlier this year, when case counts were lower, Touma said Virginia started welcoming travelers home with an email explaining how and when to test and offering a link to order a free, at-home test kit.

A COVID-19 test kit
Jodie Fleischer/NBCWashington
A COVID-19 test kit

"It was very easy. The link had all my home information already in there. All I had to do was say yes, and it came to me," said Susannah Spellman, who recently returned from a trip to Iceland.

Since travel increases a person's chances of exposure to COVID-19 and many of the variants were first detected in other countries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works with the commercial airlines to track arriving passengers.

Touma said each state gets a daily list of residents who've returned, listing their basic demographics, the country of origin and their contact information.

When Spellman returned home to Arlington from her vacation, she got an email the next day from Virginia's Department of Health.

"I was actually a little concerned. I'm like, How do they know I traveled?" she said.

Spellman is fully vaccinated. But after reading the guidance, which recommends returning travelers get a COVID-19 test within three-to-five days, she ordered a home test kit. Her negative results came back within 30 minutes, offering additional peace of mind.

A COVID-19 test kitJodie Fleischer/NBCWashington
A COVID-19 test kit

"I think it's great, I mean, being proactive to just remind people that they should test when they come back from being overseas and stay away from folks until they're certain that they are not carrying COVID," Spellman said. 

Unvaccinated travelers are asked to remain home for seven days, even if they test negative, and for 10 days if they don't get tested. The testing and quarantining are not mandatory.

The pilot program started in Northern Virginia earlier this year and expanded statewide in May. In August, when cases started spiking, the emails became entirely automated. Contact tracers only reach out to people who test positive.

Touma said, so far, Virginia has not detected any outbreaks linked to a specific flight or trip.

"We have not thankfully needed to work through that kind of situation yet, and hopefully we won't," she said.

The guidance is offered in English and Spanish to all travelers with a valid email address. Of the 24,755 who received it, nearly 2000 requested a free test kit.

"We do find it beneficial. We've gotten lots of positive feedback from the community for it," Touma said.

Spellman hopes more states will follow suit, so traveling can eventually get back to normal, without putting community members at any additional risk.

"It was just fantastic to go on vacation after being kind of cooped up for the last 18 months," said Spellman. "Over 90 percent are vaccinated, so I felt very safe there."

Spellman said her travel group included friends from D.C. and Virginia, but only the Virginia residents got notices upon returning. DC Health told News4 it is currently working on a similar plan for implementation in the near future.

"I do know that all states have access to their data so they can do it if they want. It's not a mandated thing, it's just something Virginia was able to do," said Touma.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Jeff Piper and edited by Steve Jones.

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