Christine Yi hoped the test results would arrive by the time the doors to the gate on her flight closed.
Ms. Yi, 45, a content creator in New York, tried to fly to Grand Cayman in the Caribbean over the Christmas vacation weekend with her boyfriend James Tracey, 47, the chef at Isabelle’s Osteria, a restaurant in New York’s Gramercy neighborhood.
The Cayman Islands require proof of a negative Covid test to enter the country, which was carried out within 24 hours of departure. Ms. Yi and Mr. Tracey had booked PCR testing through the NYU Medical Center in Langone the day before they were due to leave on December 24th. She received her negative test result on the evening of the 23rd. Mr. Tracey’s test was negative too – after 34 hours, a missed flight, $ 150 exchange fees, a two-hour wait for two rapid antigen tests and a return trip to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“It was definitely a memorable start to our trip,” said Ms. Yi.
Frequent testing, combined with vaccines and masking, has been repeatedly cited as the key to a holiday season closer to the “normality” of prepandemic times. But for international travelers who need tests to enter their destination, getting tested early is easier said than done. Finding a test has become more and more difficult – appointments are booked and there are often hours of waiting on accessible pages. And even if you can take a test, there is still no guarantee that your results will come back in time for boarding.
To make matters worse, the requirements for international travel are constantly changing, with test periods often being a moving target. In recent weeks, some places have shortened the window of time for valid test results, including the Cayman Islands – previously, a negative PCR test was enough for entry within 72 hours.
Testing has been a recurring pain point throughout the pandemic, from limited availability and turnaround times, which could be up to a week in Spring 2020, to the lack of home testing during the delta surge last summer. But the double blow of the highly contagious Omicron variant and the holiday season have created tremendous demand for tests that the US, by and large, was not prepared for. For some travelers, this means that the best plans, and even backup plans, can fail.
“We now have as much test volume as we did in the big wave we saw last Christmas season,” said Alicia Zhou, the chief science officer of Color, a health technology company in Burlingame, California that has worked with test sites in the California area . Color guarantees that PCR results will be processed in 48 hours or less; According to Dr. Zhou will return most results within 24 hours or less. The tests are free to the end user. They’ve been able to maintain that turnaround time in the recent surge, largely because they didn’t roll back operations when the demand for testing declined in mid-2021, said Dr. Zhou.
“It felt like it wasn’t time for us to take off the gas,” said Dr. Zhou. “Omicron snuck up on us, but it also came from Delta at the end.”
The demand for Food and Drug Administration-approved home tests like iHealth and BinaxNow has also skyrocketed as pharmacies are largely sold out and shipping is significantly delayed. If not supervised by a doctor, these tests will not be enough for international travel, but they will provide peace of mind for family gatherings.
“We’re seeing unprecedented demand for BinaxNOW and we’re shipping it asap,” said a spokesman for Abbott, the company that makes BinaxNow.
The uncertainty leads some people to hedge their bets and run multiple tests in case one doesn’t get through in time. All Pierce, a Palm Springs, California-based travel advisor and founder of Gals Abroad Getaways, recommended setting up an initial testing appointment with a family doctor and creating a backup plan that could include a second appointment or an extension to a walk-in clinic, to which Ms. Yi and Mr. Tracey were forced at the last minute in case those results don’t come back in time.
If you find a website that offers quick turnaround, “expect to pay more,” said Ms. Pierce.
Dr. Zhou understood the need for this strategy, but encouraged you to immediately cancel any additional testing appointments once you received your results.
“Try to make sure you’re not overbooked and then don’t show up on these dates,” she said. “This leads to a lower availability for appointments for others.”
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Percia Safar, 31, a Los Angeles investor, paid $ 670 for two rapid antigen tests and a series of home tests in advance of an international trip. Her process was made even more complicated by possible exposure to Covid 10 days before she was supposed to fly. In addition to the daily home self-test and an antigen test five days after exposure, she was required to perform either a PCR test within 72 hours of her departure or a rapid antigen test within 24 hours. She said she found it almost impossible to find a site that offers PCR testing that guarantees results within their window – her local CVS pharmacy cited a two to four day turnaround time.
A CVS spokesman said in a statement that the company “will continue to meet demand for Covid-19 tests even as more patients seek tests.” He added that results are usually available within a day or two, but “may take longer due to local surges in Covid-19 cases”.
“I think I can get some of this covered by insurance,” said Ms. Safar. “And of course it was a privilege to be able to pay out of pocket. But it’s a lot. I can’t believe the costs will fall on us. “
In fact, being able to pay more for a test may seem like the only way to avoid long waiting times and slow turnaround times. Jack Ezon, the founder and managing partner of EMBARK Beyond, a travel consultancy targeting high net worth individuals, said its clients have not experienced any delays or disruptions due to the current test run.
“Our customers have a concierge doctor come to their home for a PCR or go to an express lab,” he said. “We don’t care too much about these issues, but our customers are willing to spend four or five times the price just to get the service.”