OFW Guide to Going Home in the Midst of the Pandemic

My name is Peng Desuyo (‘Schwester April’ to my patients) and I’ve been working at a COVID Station here in Stuttgart, Germany for over a year now, since the 1st wave, so to say. At present we are “almost” back as Diabetes Department but COVID beds are still on standby.

I also contracted the virus last December 2020 and I was one of the lucky ones who had little to no symptoms. No fever, cough, nor loss of taste or smell. All I experienced was a bit of muscle, neck and chest pain, difficulty in sleeping, and one time I woke up and felt I couldn’t breathe properly. Maybe it was a combination of panic, fear, and the knowledge that I have COVID, because when a colleague rushed me to the Emergency Room, all my tests came back normal and the doctors sent me home. I also had heartburns until a few months after, but my gastroscopy revealed no problems at all.

COVID is sure scary, I’ve accompanied more dead patients in the last months than I’ve ever had in my entire nursing career. Modesty aside, I knew for sure I would survive given my youth and health status. But you know what almost killed me that scary night? It’s the feeling of being alone, away from family, in a foreign land where I barely speak the language and I barely know the people.

And that was heartbreaking.

For this year 2021, I planned 5 weeks of vacation last May and I spent most of it, where else, where my family is, where I fluently speak the language, and where I know where my people are, the Philippines. Let me run you through the months leading to my homecoming in the middle of the pandemic.

OFW Pandemic 2

Flying with No Antibodies, No Vaccine

After my COVID scare, fast track to year 2021, I learned that I never developed COVID antibodies. I got tested twice: in January 2021, my result was 5.6 AU/mL (the normal value is >= 15 AU/mL).

One doctor said “No, that can’t be right. You got tested too early, your body needs more time”

Okay, so I repeated the test 2 months later, in March 2021 and got 3.8 AU/mL, even fewer!

WTF. How long does my body need then? Really, what the hell is wrong with me?!

I later learned that according to a study in China, levels of antibodies against COVID-19 were significantly lesser in asymptomatic patients than those with active symptoms.

I’m lucky to be as fit as ever again: my Lung Function Test in April revealed 92%, as if I never got COVID. At this time I told myself: ”Okay, so I have no antibodies, I work in a COVID station, and I am flying back to the Philippines very soon (flight was May 20), I am definitely getting a vaccine”

But nope. I arrived at the vaccine center expecting my shot but when the doctor learned I tested positive in December, she told me I could only get vaccinated not until July 2021. I argued a bit, telling her I have no antibodies and I work at a COVID station, but she was firm: no vaccine for me and she sent me home.

Here in Germany, we follow the recommendations of Ständige Impfkommission / Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), it says that recovered COVID patients could receive vaccines 6 months after diagnosis, and only one dose is required. There had been reports that those who have received the vaccine earlier reacted badly (I know someone who almost got blind and another one who had lymphedema on the injection site). Scary. But we all know these could all still change.

So I went back to my apartment: a bit frustrated and not yet vaccinated.

But there’s absolutely no way I’m not pushing through with my planned homecoming. As of writing this blog, I’m sitting here in my apartment in Germany, COVID-free, and back at the frontlines. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Before the flight – register to the following links, update OWWA membership (important!)

              Yes, it’s a lot and very redundant. What’s new though, only in the Philippines *rolls eyes

  1. Secure a negative PCR Test

The validity would totally depend on your airline, some require 48 or 72 hours before the flight. Ask them and bring a hard copy to the airport.

OFW Pandemic 7

  1. I flew Business Class, two way

With no antibody and no vaccine, I am not allowing another human being sit beside me in a place as enclosed as an airplane. My total flying time is 14 hours and I of course need to eat, drink, and remove my mask, so there’s no way in hell I’m flying in Economy. I find it stupid that people are asked to socially distance when lining up in the airport and then will be seated elbow to elbow inside the plane. This logic escapes me.

Luckily, I got my round-trip Stuttgart – Manila flight at 1,526.23€ (around PHP 88,500) via Turkish Airlines. They released a 50% promo awhile back and thank God I maintain a travel fund, so I was able to book right away. *wink

It was, I would say, the best flight of my life, EVER:

  • In-flight Wi-Fi.
  • Lie-flat seat = no leg cramps.
  • Priority lines everywhere = little to no waiting.
  • Seats have barriers in between so no contact with other people = less risk for COVID.
  • Business Class Lounge has free Wi-Fi, unlimited food and drinks.
  • Totally worth every centavo.
  • Would recommend and do it again.
  1. Airport Arrival in Manila

Upon arriving at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila, the process was actually smooth. People in uniform, from the Philippine Coast Guard I believe, were everywhere assisting and directing the travelers where to sit, line up, what to present at the counter, etc.

I just presented my passport, German residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel), and screenshots from the links I previously registered on. It was a smooth and uncomplicated process. In about one hour after landing in Manila, I’m already inside a special bus bringing us to IM Hotel in Makati where I spent my 10-day hotel quarantine. As an OFW, I prebooked and paid nothing.

Important to have at this point: own ballpen, there are thousands of forms to fill out.

OFW Pandemic 1

OFW Pandemic 5

  1. Hotel Quarantine

In December 2020, passengers arriving to the Philippines were swabbed immediately upon arrival and brought to a hotel to wait for the negative PCR test. Once negative, they are sent home.

In March 2021, all incoming passengers, regardless of vaccination or past COVID status, were required to undergo a 7-day strict hotel quarantine. They underwent a PCR test on the 5th day of quarantine. Upon receipt of negative result, they were discharged.

Starting May 1, 2021 though, the quarantine duration was increased to 10 days, still regardless of vaccination or COVID history. Arriving passengers underwent a PCR test on the 7th day of quarantine and even with a negative PCR test, they must still complete the 10-day quarantine. Afterwards, additional 4 days home quarantine to complete the 2 weeks. I was part of this group.

As of July 1, 2021, fully vaccinated travelers will have the privilege to shorten the hotel quarantine from 10 to 7 days. PCR will be done on the 5th day. Watch and read the news, please be guided accordingly.

Important points to know:

  • The quarantine duration is actually not to be entirely completed. The day you land is already Day 1 and not Day 0, and on the “last day”, everyone must check out before 12NN. My 10-day quarantine period, if we will be technical, was actually only 8.5 days.
  • Food and water are provided by the hotel, but lower your expectations.
  • Bring enough clothes, toiletries, snacks, and stuff that will keep you busy the entire quarantine period. Unless you’d like to order sandwich and coffee amounting to Php 250 from the hotel. Not worth it, believe me.
  • There are OWWA Houseparents who can buy stuff for you, but on a very limited basis. They decide what to buy and what not to buy. No service charge.
  • Deliveries from commercial couriers or from relatives are strictly not allowed (at least in IM Hotel). My sister and aunt tried bringing me some essentials and even went to the extent of telling the management that I have food allergies, but to no avail. And this pissed the hell out of me. Here’s what I did:

  • The RT-PCR test was done on the 7th day and I knew right then and then that I was negative. Because aside from the fact that I have a negative PCR before boarding the plane and was isolated the whole time, the way the test was administered was too shallow: the swab didn’t even reach my uvula, only the side of my cheeks.

I reported it immediately to the hotel management and even though I’m not sure if that test kit has some sort of supernatural powers which can detect the virus without reaching the uvula (it probably has, who knows), at least they were informed. And besides, I’m a COVID nurse: I’ve swabbed my patients and myself thousand times, so I know what I’m saying.

I also asked the PH Coast Guard personnel if are there people who actually tested positive despite this quarantine requirement. Sadly, they couldn’t give me an answer as they only administer the test and have no access to the results.

  • The test result is accessible via the OASIS link and we were told that as soon as we have a negative result, we can accept deliveries. I wanted to order Jollibee so bad I checked the link probably every 20 minutes, to the point I already memorized the code LOL. However, the result came out 2 days after, at 11PM no less, and my discharge was already the following morning, so thanks but no thanks.
  • A Quarantine Certificate is also accessible through the link and should be presented upon checkout. I am based in Manila so I was allowed to be fetched by my siblings. For those living outside Manila, free transportation was also provided.

The Philippine International Automotive Task Force (IATF) still claims that this long hotel quarantine is necessary to curb the pandemic. Sure, with the shortened quarantine time (8.5 instead of 10 days) and the improperly administered PCR test? Come on, let’s not fool ourselves, shall we?

In my opinion, this is exaggerated. Totally unnecessary.

Absolute waste of money, manpower, and time AKA precious vacation leave AKA even more precious time with family.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the free hotel accommodation, food, and PCR test I got, but again, this is all TOO MUCH. The virus is already in the country and all passengers have negative PCR tests before flying, some are even vaccinated or like me, Covid survivors. My other needs like additional food I had to order from the hotel as deliveries aren’t allowed. Why? Exactly my question. Pretty sure some people or sectors are benefitting business-wise from this quarantine protocol.

Whew Pilipinas, hirap mong mahalin 💔

  1. Home Quarantine

As always, we are responsible for our own actions so it’s totally up to you if you’d continue doing the 4-day home quarantine. Be vigilant though: I know someone, fully vaccinated with Moderna, and still tested positive during vacation in the Philippines. She was then forced to cancel her flight and stay for another 14 days in the Philippines. She had to extend her vacation, without pay, and face her furious Headnurse afterwards.

  1. Enjoy

I noticed that the atmosphere towards COVID is very different in the Philippines. People still gather, flock the malls, go swimming, eat in closed spaces, etc. as if the pandemic doesn’t exist. All I can say is be careful: use only private vehicles if you can, observe proper hygiene, social distance. We’ve been doing all these for over a year, you know the drill.

Enjoy but be responsible.

  1. Before the flight back to Stuttgart, Germany – register to the following links and secure screenshots:

  1. Secure a negative PCR Test

This test should be within 48 hours until your arrival in German land. So please be guided accordingly especially if you have a very long layover. If the test is older than 48 hours, you would need to undergo an Antigen Test and pay additional Php 1,000.

I suggest that if your flight is in the evening, get yourself tested in the morning of the same day. I did mine at Manila Doctors Hospital at 6AM, received my results 8 hours after at 2PM, then flew at 9PM. The swab was administered correctly, btw #proud.

  1. Quarantine in Germany

Just kidding, LOL.

If you’re fully vaccinated or has tested positive in the last 6 months prior to the travel (which I have), there’s no need to quarantine because the Philippines is only a normal risk area and not virus variant. Two days after my arrival, I was back at my station charming my colleagues with my dried mangoes pasalubong *wink

That’s it. Good luck and you’re welcome.

UPDATE: I’m already vaccinated in July *wink