The trip to Shanghai started on Wednesday Cinqo de Mayo (May 5th) from Austin. It’s a cumbersome trip because China requires you to take two COVID19 tests. Both the PCR (nasal swap) and antibody (blood serum) test. Both need to be taken at the port of departure within 48-hours of your flight leaving at a Chinese consulate approved testing facility. In my case that was the Bay Area because I was flying out of San Francisco, one of the few places with semi-direct flights between the USA and China.
I had registered with Apostle Diagnostics in San Jose well in advance to do my tests there at 9am on Thursday. I stayed in a hotel nearby and I showed up promptly at 8:30am as suggested in their instructions. I was one of the first ones and as it got closer to 9am more folks started to queue up. These were all people getting ready to travel to China and as you can expect most of them were Chinese and speaking Mandarin. I only spotted one other Caucasian looking individual. Apparently only the two of us were crazy to go through this.
I had signed up for the rtPCR+IgM (targeting the N protein) tests because I had been vaccinated with Moderna vaccine months earlier. The rtPCR test is the regular nasal swap test and the IgM test requires a blood (serum) sample. It turns out that the standard serum test (S protein) can have false positives when you’ve had the Pfizer/Moderna/Johnson&Johnson vaccine, and the special serum test (M protein) does not. Interestingly, when I got the test results back, they performed all three tests (rtPCR, IgM-S, and IgM-M) and they all came back negative.
The tests itself were streamlined. As soon as they had checked your paperwork (make sure you have everything printed or ready on your phone) you started the process of double checking your information, get the nasal swap, and take a blood sample. During the blood test they asked me whether I wanted to have a proof picture. I wasn’t quite sure what they meant by that but apparently its used to show the consulate that you have taken the test at a certified lab. In cases like this I just say yes and go with the flow. I also got a form to fill out that was basically a self-signed attestation that the vaccine form I had was real and not forged. I guess that has become a problem now too: falsified vaccination forms.
With all the tests done I went back to my hotel room and worked while I waited for the results to come in. It’s a same day test but the lab guarantee is before midnight and usually the result return between 6-8pm. This had me a bit on edge because the consulate stops approving these tests by 10pm and starts again at 9am. My flight was at 10:55am the next day so that was pretty tight. If I had to do it all over again, I would cut it less short and do the test on Wednesday afternoon.
I got the test results just after 6pm and immediately submitted them onto the consulate’s website, https://hrhk.cs.mfa.gov.cn/H5/ (notice the trailing / its important), including the authentication picture and the certificate that I swore I had gotten the vaccine. Someone warned me that the website was picky about file sizes and I noticed that it didn’t accept the labs results pdf. So, I converted everything to jpeg files and compressed the heck out of them. With everything submitted I received the green code I needed to board the flight after 1.5hr which felt like ages to me.
The next morning, I showed up early at SFO with the expectation that I was fully set. Nope, there was yet another form I had to fill out online at http://health.customsapp.com/. This website is in English/Chinese with the error messages in Chinese. The United Airlines person at the check-in counter, who was already grumpy, was not happy with me that it took me so long to fill out the form. She started servicing other folks while I was working on it. The website rendering didn’t work too well on my iphone so it took me a while to work around its quirks. Eventually I got the customs QR code and then my boarding pass. Do make sure to take screenshots of all these passes and QR codes. Folks ask for them everywhere.
The San Francisco airport was pretty busy but despite that United Airlines had closed its Polaris club and most other clubs. The AMEX lounge was open, so I hung out there instead. Boarding the flight was easy but then there was a maintenance issue that caused us all to deplane and get on another plane that left 3.5hrs later. Sigh! The flight itself was surprisingly full but uneventful. As expected, we all had to wear masks the whole time. We did make a short stop to change the crew in south Korea. I wonder whether that was because the crew can’t stay in China without going through a 14-day quarantine either. By flying from Korea, and never leave the airplane, they can get back and forth on the same day.
Saturday, around 7:30pm I arrived, 2:30hrs later than planned, at Shanghai Pudong airport. It had been a long day but it would get even longer.