When Ken McElroy decided to go to Belize after a business trip to Miami last June, he was not worried about getting Covid-19, he said.
The real estate investment firm’s CEO flew privately to both locations – plus, he’s been vaccinated.
“I was like, there’s no way I’m getting it,” he told CNBC.
His fiancée, Danille Underwood, was not so sure, McElroy said.
After 10 days in Belize, the couple took the Covid test the day before their flight back to Arizona. Although he felt tired and she had a cough, both were surprised when their test came back positive.
“Within an hour, we were out of our room,” McElroy said. “Things got pretty real at the time.”
Assisted by people in hazmat suits, the couple was quarantined in another part of the hotel, he said.
“We were not sure what would happen … if they were to separate us or put us in a hospital,” McElroy said. “I did not know if I should use a respirator.”
None of that happened. Within 72 hours, the couple was on a Learjet back to Arizona.
Before they left, Underwood bought memberships with Covac Global, a medical evacuation company launched by the crisis response company HRI in the spring of 2020. That meant the couple did not pay a penny for their repatriation, McElroy said.
Commercial airlines and private jets cannot fly passengers with Covid-19 homes, but certified air ambulances manned by medical teams can.
While some companies evacuate travelers who require hospitalization, Covac Global picks up travelers who test positive for Covid-19 and have a self-reported symptom. About 85% of the evacuees are returned home, while the rest need hospital attention, says CEO Ross Thompson.
When CNBC first spoke to the company in March, it performed about two to three medical evacuations each month. Now this number has risen to about 12 to 20.
“Unfortunately, the business is booming,” Thompson said. “Covid started to be more in the rearview mirror, but then the delta showed up – and it threw everyone into a loop.”
Covac Global memberships have increased 500% this year with a 250% increase in the last month alone, he said.
So-called “breakthrough infections” caused by the highly contagious delta variant mean that even vaccinated people can find themselves sick — or stuck — far from home. About 60 percent of current evacuees have been vaccinated, Thompson said, because “those are the ones who feel most comfortable traveling now.”
Ken McElroy and Danille Underwood board a helicopter to fly to Belize City.
Greetings by Ken McElroy
Many countries require negative tests to return home, detecting mild cases of Covid-19 in travelers who did not know they were infected.
“We find that between 30% and 40% of members test positive towards the end of their journey,” Thompson said. “We also see it with vaccinated travelers’ unvaccinated younger children.”
Medjet, another medical evacuation company, reports a record-breaking summer and announces that sales of MedjetHorizon memberships — its highest coverage level — were at a record high in July. The company has just announced its highest monthly gains in memberships for more than a decade, it says.
Calls for assistance are above pre-pandemic levels, Medjetet CEO John Gobbels said, although not all of them are related to the pandemic.
“Some are for Covid, but the majority are still the same old things that have never disappeared,” he said.
After flying by helicopter to mainland Belize and transferring to a Learjet (“we did not have to go into the terminal”), McElroy and Underwood flew to Phoenix, where a limousine bus was waiting on the tarmac.
Service “was literally door to door,” McElroy said.
However, this is not about five-star service, Thompson said. Certified air ambulances are required to get covid-positive patients to either hospitals or, in the case of Covac Global, their home, he said.
Medical evacuation flights, like the one McElroy and Underwood used to fly home to, are like a private jet and a hospital emergency room in one, Ross Thompson said.
Greetings by Ken McElroy
Otherwise, situations arise where non-members ask to be evacuated to the nearest town in their country so they can drive to their homes to save money, he said. Instead of driving, they can hop on a commercial flight, which Thompson said was “a big no-no.”
McElroy called her fiancé “the hero of history” when she had pushed on and eventually bought their evacuation policy.
Other travelers are not so lucky.
CNBC spoke to a 43-year-old Singaporean man who tried to move from India back to Singapore last April to start a new job. The journey — which can only be a six-hour flight — became a six-week saga. The man requested anonymity for this report.
Singapore restricted travelers from India, so the man and his family planned a two-week trip to Nepal, after which they could fly directly to Singapore. While there, the delta variant in the region exploded and all flights from Nepal to Singapore were canceled.
Within days, the man, his wife, three children and his 85-year-old mother all tested positive for Covid, he said. By that time, Nepal had introduced a strict lockdown – gas stations and public transport had closed, he said, and the family was struggling to find food and medicine.
Due to lack of space, Covid-19 patients were spilled into the corridors of a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal on May 11, 2021.
Prabin Ranabhat | SOPA images | LightRocket | Getty Images
“We knew no one,” he said. “We knew nothing about the medical system, and people are dying, left, right and middle without beds and without oxygen.”
The family was thrown out of their service apartment when management was told about their health conditions, he said. The weeks went by and the family fully recovered but they were prevented from taking the plane once a week back to Delhi because they continued to test positive for Covid-19.
“RT-PCR [test] basically look for the DNA of the virus, it does not distinguish between dead and living cells,” he said.
He investigated medical evacuations, but was told by a friend who was also stuck in the Philippines that such flights are “astronomically expensive”.
Eventually the family tested negative and came back to Delhi. In the 20 days following his recovery, the man told CNBC that he slept in 12 different places. He is now in Singapore but some of his family members remain in India.
Medical evacuation is expensive. Thompson said evacuations from Singapore to New York could cost up to $ 300,000. Yet 70% of Covac Global evacuations are non-members who pay out of pocket to be flown home from places like the Bahamas, Mexico, South Africa and Dubai.
Since membership opened to all nationalities on July 15, the company has been evacuating more people in Europe, particularly from Spain to the UK.
So far, Thompson said, no foreign government has rejected his company’s request to evacuate a Covid-positive traveler from its territory. They are usually happy to let them go, he said.
“They do not want a news story about a foreigner dying of delta in their hospitals,” he said, nor do they want to “lose one of their beds to a foreigner.”
The only time problems can occur when a hospital has already started treatment. “That’s when governments really start to get a little weird about it,” he said.
Membership with companies like Medjet and Global Rescue covers cruise passengers, but Covac Global does not.
“Cruises are doing really well with their protocols and policies,” Thompson said. “But the problem is … every time, whether it’s reported or not, there are people who are sick.”
Covac Global has evacuated Covid-positive travelers who are not members of cruises, even though these cases are not receiving news, he said.
Thompson said the service is not expensive for price-conscious cruises.
“Cruise ships,” he said, “just quietly pay for it out of pocket.”
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