Glasgow, Scotland November 2021

High anxiety accompanied planning for a trip to Scotland for the United Nations climate conference, but not for fear of catching COVID-19 at what had all the makings of a coronavirus super-spreader event.

Rather, it was doubt that my COVID test results would be reported back from the lab in time to be allowed on the trans-Atlantic flight.

Testing protocol demanded that I do the nasal swab for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test no earlier than 72 hours before the flight, so there was a narrow window to get a negative result back. What if I tested positive for the coronavirus, or the report was a false positive?  Or inconclusive? Or if  the test report came in a  half-hour after take-off?

With very little in the world seeming to function these days —from internet service and macro-economics to my trusty ballpoint pen and my troubled office supply store— I had little faith that my COVID test result would come back in time.

Twenty-four hours passed with no report. Forty-eight, and still no result. Would I be making the trip or not? It had been planned for at least six months, but a modicum of inefficiency at the last moment could crash everything.

Growing desperate, I put my packing aside to head out in search of the quicker but less persuasive antigen test even though it probably would not be accepted by the airline when I checked in. A Walgreens pharmacist in Rio Rancho said what I was looking for was the BinaxNow  kit… but they were sold out and did not expect more for some time.

With little hope, I tried the CVS Pharmacy across the street. Success! So  the night before my flight, I rushed home to take the self-test, and while I was opening the package, my cell phone buzzed. Results for the original PCR were in and negative. I resumed packing, remembering to include those results.

Enormous relief… not that I was COVID-free but that the results had flown in through that narrow window.

Finally onboard and in the air, headed from Dallas to London, I was surprised to find I had a row of seats all to myself, so I had mininal concerns about breathing coronavirus from fellow passengers.

Further COVID protocols in the United  Kingdom required that I take another test before heading to Glasgow’s Scottish Event Centre where the UN meeting, COP-26, was getting under way. A welcome packet distributed by the UN secretariat to accredited news media included a Brisish version of the BinaxNow test… which had to be self-administered and reported via internet every day before admission to the conference center’s “Blue Zone” reserved for national government delegations, news media and invited or approved guests such as Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Al Gore.

What if I had caught COVID on the plane, or in an airport, or in one of the long lines just trying to show a test result, or waiting to go through tight security?  If positive, I was supposed to quarantine for 10 days, basically the remainder of COP-26.

On the second day in Glasgow, I was required to self-administer another PCR  test and find a way to get it to a lab where it would be analyzed. Again, a narrow window to get the test to a lab and get  results back in time to be admitted to the Blue Zone. But again, it worked, just barely.

So every morning for the next 10 days, I swabbed my nostrils, dipped the results in a chemical and waited for results to show before emailing the proof that I was coronavirus free.  At the first of several security gates outside the conference center, I had to call up that day’s antigen test results on my cell phone to show a guard.

And so it went day after day, before mingling with  tens of thousands of people from all over the world, including those from countries where public health safeguards were rudimentary and even grossly inadequate.

Face masks were required everywhere, except when participants were eating, of course.  Long lines prevailed at the mostly cafeteria-style eateries inside the conference center. People sat nearly cheek-to-jowl, to have meals in vast dining areas where no one enforced social distancing, and members of national delegations typically clustered maskless to compare notes or devise negotiating strategies.

To my knowledge, no one attending COP-26 came down with COVID, but I’m not sure that would have been widely publicized if it had happened.

As I prepared to leave Glasgow and return to Corrales, one last COVID-related anxiety lay ahead. I had to take another PCR test no earlier than 72 hours before the flight home.

But nothing had been arranged by the UN secretariat to accommodate that required testing, and no guidance was provided at the conference’s information desks. Finally I was told a pre-departure test could be given at an office just outside the event center’s main entrance. That turned  out not to be true: a security guard there notified me the site was for people who suspected they might have come down with COVID. I left quickly.

A Google search eventually led to an unlikely storefront in the center of Glasgow where massages and other bodywork were carried out. Still, a reassuring attendant said I had come to the right place. After a short wait, he led me and two other people downstairs to  a more clinical setting.

After payment of a steep fee and submitting to an inside-the-cheek swab, I was assured that test results would be emailed to me in time to catch the flight home. Again, just in the nick of time, a negative result did come in.

After a grueling journey home followed by persistent jet lag, I continued to test negative for COVID-19 over the next two weeks.

Jeff Radford

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