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Testing before Thanksgiving travel was a mess. Here’s what that means for Christmas.


(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Chris Dong knew he would be in for a wait — two hours, maybe three — when he went to get a coronavirus test in New York City after traveling for work and before a Thanksgiving trip. The dearth of available appointments, his typical way to get tested, was a clue. But he wasn’t prepared for what he found the Friday before the holiday.

“It was basically five hours of standing outside,” said Dong, 27, a reporter at the Points Guy who wrote about the experience. “It was pretty intense.”

Across the country in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, long waits and delayed results greeted people seeking tests before they traveled or gathered. Health authorities warn that a surge in cases related to Thanksgiving travel could send more to get tested in the coming weeks, just as pre-Christmas travelers line up.

“I think with the increased cases, the demand is just going to keep going up because people are going to know people who got sick,” says Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

So what does that mean for people who want to travel for Christmas?

“You shouldn’t,” says Shira Doron, an infectious-disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. “In some ways, I hope that the long lines and long turnaround times, which potentially impacted people’s ability to go where they wanted to go, might be a lesson for people when they want to travel for Christmas. Maybe they just won’t do it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed her sentiments to stay home, offering the same advice it put out before Thanksgiving — except much earlier, in this case.

“We have several weeks to really think about the safest option for them and their family, which we think is to postpone travel,” Cindy Friedman, the head of the agency’s travel branch, said in a news briefing this week. “And then we’ve outlined all the other measures that they can take if they do have to travel.”

Despite the pleas of health authorities to stay home, many people will travel to join family and friends for Christmas, if Thanksgiving is any indication. The Transportation Security Administration screened about 9.5 million passengers between Nov. 20 and Nov. 29. AAA expected nearly 48 million people to travel by car for the holiday.

For those who are traveling, here is what experts say to keep in mind:

Make a plan for where to get tested now — and an appointment, if you can

Jon Weinstein, the director of the coronavirus testing task force for Maryland, said his team started planning weeks in advance to ramp up capacity for Thanksgiving but still were inundated. Staffers are working now to bring more personnel on board to handle the demand for Christmas.

“There was literally a mad rush for tests,” he said. “Even people who had appointments in some places still had to wait just because of the sheer volume.”

People should use the time they have now to figure out where to go, how the process works and how far in advance they can make an appointment.

Dong said people should also have backup testing plans in place in case something unexpected affects their main plans. In his piece, he cites a colleague who got an appointment only to find the facility had run out of rapid tests.

Lin Chen, the director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, said it is important to nab an appointment sooner rather than later.

“I think places that have opened up testing schedules may already be filling up for some of those days before Christmas,” she said.

While some authorities are expanding their ability to test more people, it is not clear whether that will be enough — or if labs will be able to keep up.

“It’s hard to predict what the picture’s going to be like, but I think there’s so much pent-up demand for travel,” said Chen, the president of the International Society of Travel Medicine. “So I think it probably will still be busy before the Christmas holidays and after.”

Give yourself time to get results

At Tufts Medical Center, which saw a “very, very high volume” of tests before Thanksgiving, Doron said the turnaround for results increased from between 24 to 48 hours to 72 hours. Weinstein said he has been seeing results take longer, as well, and he warned that Christmas travelers should prepare for the same.

Weinstein said he has already heard a couple of instances in which people who got tested decided to travel before they received results and learned they tested positive after arriving at their destination.

“If you’re going to get tested, wait for the results,” he said. “I shouldn’t be having to say this.” He added that anyone who is going to travel should continue to isolate and avoid risky behavior after they get tested.

The CDC suggests getting tested one to three days before a trip — a time frame that could be tricky, given the turnaround for some results — and again three to five days after traveling. The agency suggests reducing nonessential activities for seven days after traveling, even with a negative result, or cutting back on activities for 10 days after a trip if a traveler is not getting tested.

Self-quarantine strategically

The safest amount of time to stay home and avoid any risk of contracting the virus is 14 days; Doron says people are most likely to stay negative after getting a negative test if they have quarantined for 14 days before.

This week, the CDC said a quarantine could end after 10 days without a coronavirus test if someone has reported no symptoms, or after seven days with a negative test result if the person has no symptoms.

Chen says a Christmas traveler trying to be as safe as possible should self-quarantine for seven days before travel, with plans to get tested one to three days before traveling. To be safe, they should then avoid other people and self-monitor for another seven days after they arrive, with another test around three to five days after arrival. Depending on the length of the trip, there should be another test one to three days before returning home. And that, she said, should be followed by another period of self-quarantine after getting home, with a final test three to five days in.

“The whole thing just takes a lot of planning,” she said.

Don’t use the test as a free pass

Gronvall said even with a negative test and isolation, people should be extra cautious if they are traveling.

“You have to isolate, you should test, you should increase the ventilation in the place you’re going, you should minimize close contact and have things outdoors as much as possible,” she said.

Doron warned that even if someone strictly isolates and tests negative, they could pick up the virus on the way to their destination and then get sick after they arrive.

While a test adds “a layer of protection,” she said, “we certainly would never say, ‘And then you can go hug grandma without a mask and eat unmasked while singing and shouting.’ "

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