If you are planning on getting a coronavirus test ahead of your holiday travels this year, it may be trickier than you would expect. While more than 58 percent of the United States is fully vaccinated, experts predict the demand for coronavirus tests is set to spike, leaving people who may need them for travel documentation or medical reasons scrambling.
There has been a shortage of at-home tests since the delta surge earlier this year. Last month, the Biden administration announced it was buying $1 billion worth of tests to address the shortage. The investment is also expected to drive the price down on testing.
Last year, although the government urged people to stay home, a bump in travel during Thanksgiving and winter holidays increased the demand for tests. The United States can expect a greater surge this year. A government mandate for employers to vaccinate or regularly test their workers that is facing opposition in federal court could also stress the supply chain.
Vault Health chief executive Jason Feldman, whose virtual health-care company provides coronavirus tests, said suppliers are facing a challenge because more people than ever are getting tested.
“The system is getting very tapped,” Feldman said. “And while there has been some effort by the federal government to spend money to support the testing infrastructure, it’s only to the tune of a very small number of tests relative to the number of people using the tests.” (The Biden administration’s investment is expected to increase the number of at-home tests to 200 million per month by December.)
Here are some tips for navigating the testing shortage before the last minute.
Book an in-person test in advance
Depending on where you live, in-person testing may be available at airports, pharmacies, fire stations, hospitals, schools, hotels and farmers markets, among other establishments. Your local health department website should have information on finding testing sites, or you can ask your primary-care provider for tips.
Sameday Health, a health-care provider with 50 clinics nationwide, offers in-clinic rapid and PCR tests. The company also does house calls. Patrick Emad, the general manager of clinic operations at Sameday, said people can book appointments up to three months out, which could be helpful for travelers thinking ahead.
How much you pay for your in-person test will depend on the type of test you get — PCR tends to be more expensive — when you get it, where you get it and why. People may qualify for free testing if they meet certain criteria, like whether they’ve been exposed or work in a place with a high risk for exposure.
Before you lock in a $300 appointment for a test at the airport, make sure you exhaust the other options listed on your city and state health department websites. For international testing, visit the U.S. Embassy website or the official tourism board website of the country you’re in to find more information.
Buy a self-test before you need one
If you’re testing for peace of mind or want to keep one in your suitcase, having a self-test is one of the easiest options. A pack of two BinaxNow or QuickVue rapid tests should cost you about $20 online or from your local drugstore if you are lucky enough to find a box.
“Covid tests have become the new toilet paper … people are hoarding them as they’re able to,” said Leo Friedman, the chief executive of iPromo, a supplier of coronavirus tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) that specializes in bulk orders.
“Covid tests have become the new toilet paper … people are hoarding them as they’re able to.”
“That doesn’t mean you won’t get [a test],” Friedman said. “You just have to plan ahead … unless you’re willing to pay an arm and a leg.”
At-home PCR test options are also available, but they need to be sent to a lab for companies like Vault and Pixel to process them (turnaround can still be quick). Check with your local health department website to see if there are pickup and drop-off sites for free at-home PCR tests. For example, D.C. has them available at libraries.
Don’t rush to get tested if it’s not required
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as long as you are not showing symptoms, you don’t need to get tested if you’re fully vaccinated or have recovered from covid-19 in the past three months. Vaccinated travelers should also test five to seven days after coming into contact with someone with covid-19.
The CDC said unvaccinated people should test one to three days before travel and within three to five days of their return. If they have been exposed to someone with covid-19, they should test immediately. In that case, even if the result is negative, they should test again in five to seven days or as soon as they develop any symptoms.
Depending on the destination, you may need a test to travel regardless of vaccination status. Travelers need one to return to the United States from trips abroad.
It’s okay to get tested to see a high-risk loved one
Daniel Rhoads, section head of microbiology at the Cleveland Clinic, leads coronavirus testing for the academic medical center. He said some travelers may want to get tested so they feel responsible around high-risk loved ones, even if it’s not legally required or recommended by the CDC.
“I can imagine the desire to have some level of caution to try to prevent bringing covid to a loved one who’s high-risk,” Rhoads said. “That seems reasonable to me and would provide some people peace of mind.”
Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she encourages travelers to pack a self-test with them during their holiday travel, regardless of vaccination status. Feldman called it a “kitchen cabinet” test, one to have on hand in case of emergency. If you wake up on your trip feeling sick, a rapid test can provide a quick assessment of the situation.
Rhoads wanted to remind travelers that while testing isn’t foolproof, it can add another layer of protection to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
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