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Coronavirus FAQ: Should I humor my friend's request for a pointless COVID precaution?

A friend's invitation to fly in for a visit at their vacation cabin came with a request for a COVID precaution that seemed ... not very helpful.
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A friend's invitation to fly in for a visit at their vacation cabin came with a request for a COVID precaution that seemed ... not very helpful.

Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

My friends invited me to spend a weekend at their cabin. I'm vaccinated. So are my friends – who are demanding that I get a rapid COVID-19 test right after traveling to see if I got infected during the flight. But a test wouldn't address that concern so isn't it ... a ridiculous request?

Well, clearly it's not ridiculous to your friends, who want to be assured that you did not get infected while traveling.

But here's the thing.

You don't get sneezed or coughed or breathed on by an infectious person and then instantly register "RED ALERT" on a COVID-19 test. If you are exposed to someone who's infectious and you do pick up enough viral particles to develop a breakthrough infection, it would take three to five days before your personal viral load would be high enough to register "positive." That's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

So a test right after you've flown doesn't provide any real assurance.

And it's a waste of valuable resources. You'd be using up a test for no reason.

"I would tell your friends, 'I'm going to follow the CDC guidelines,' " says Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of adult and pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, "because being tested after a flight isn't going to answer the question you're trying to answer:" Did you pick up a breakthrough infection during your travels?

Maybe you could persuade them to give up their test demand by highlighting the steps you took to mitigate risk in the days before you got on the plane as well as during the trip, says Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Virginia Tech. So you might say something like: "I was tested a few days before I left, I knew I wasn't positive for COVID, I wore a double mask or a mask on the flight, I washed my hands, I carried sanitizer. I did all these things that are scientifically based." Following such protocols will offer a better degree of protection for your friends than sharing the results of a right-off-the-plane test, says Baker.

If your friend really wants assurances that you didn't pick up an infection during travel, you could stay away from their cabin for three days and then take the COVID-19 test.

But you also have to ask yourself: Are my friends really going to listen to me? We all know people you can't reason with. So just as it's hard to talk someone into, say, getting a vaccine or putting on a mask if they are dead set against it, it can be difficult to convince someone that their extra-cautious frame of mind is not really backed up by scientific evidence.

If that's the case, you'll have to make a decision based on your inner compass. The answer might be that you'll end up taking a rain check on that weekend in the cabin. Or you could decide to humor your friend's request.

"I think the main message now as we move through this pandemic is everyone's going to have different levels of risk tolerance," notes Weatherhead. "If you communicate and respect what makes people feel comfortable, the easier it will be to navigate through the pandemic and still have that relationship."

So maybe you'll end up taking that test to appease your friends, says Baker: "For the sake of the relationship, I would do it if it was that important and I couldn't use data to convince them otherwise."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.