IGeneX, Inc., a high-complexity lab specializing in disease testing, has shared some critical testing tips as people gear up for holiday travel. By following these best practices for COVID-19 testing, holiday travelers can minimize new hassles introduced by the global pandemic.
“Traveling over the holidays can be challenging in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic,” said Dr. Jyotsna Shah, president of IGeneX, Inc. “These days, there are more things to check off your pre-trip to-do list, including taking a COVID-19 test. Many destinations require travelers to either take a test before leaving, or self-quarantine for up to 14 days upon arrival to stem the spread of the virus. IGeneX has compiled some important tips to help travelers navigate COVID-19 testing and ensure the smoothest possible holiday travel.”
Get the right test: Not all COVID-19 tests are the same, and not all tests may be accepted at your destination. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of tests: RT-PCR tests and rapid antigen tests. RT-PCR tests are considered the gold standard for COVID-19 testing and the results are accepted for most domestic and international travel. These tests are slightly more expensive and can take longer to process than rapid antigen tests but are more likely to provide a correct answer. Rapid antigen tests are fast and cheap but are statistically less accurate than RT-PCR tests, especially for people who are experiencing no symptoms. The White House recently had issues with these tests providing false negative results, and nursing homes in Nevada experienced false positive results with these same rapid tests.
“We strongly recommend travelers choose an RT-PCR COVID-19 test, if possible,” said Dr. Shah. “The rapid antigen test can be good for detecting highly symptomatic people, but if you are traveling then you are likely symptom free and at a greater risk of receiving an inaccurate reading from a rapid antigen test.”
Know the regulations for your destination: COVID-19 testing requirements not only differ domestically and internationally, but also state to state. Hawaii, in particular, has some of the most stringent testing requirements of any destination. Currently, all visitors to Hawaii must show evidence of a recent negative RT-PCR test from an approved lab when arriving in the state, or else they face 14 days of quarantine.
Making matters worse is that testing requirements are constantly changing as virus cases fluctuate. For instance, starting on November 5, travelers to China were required to present a negative IgM antibody test in addition to a negative RT-PCR test. An antibody test requires a blood sample, which adds an additional layer of complexity to travel plans. That is why it is vitally important to check state and local public health websites for information before you travel.
If you are traveling internationally, check the destination’s Office of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Health, Bureau of Consular Affairs or country Information page for details about entry requirements and restrictions for arriving travelers. State.gov has a great color-coded map with more information about organizations to contact.
“We have tested numerous travelers to China, India, and Guatemala and the COVID-19 testing policies are different for each country,” said Dr. Shah. “It is crucial that travelers know the restrictions ahead of time.”
Timing is important: Most destinations require that visitors provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival. Some countries are even more strict: China requires that both the RT-PCR and IgM antibody tests be taken within 48 hours before boarding. Regardless of whether it’s two or three days, finding a test that can be completed in that short of a time frame can be challenging.
Some airports have helped address the timing challenge by offering testing immediately before flights. But these tests, once again, are mostly rapid antigen tests, often completed in 15 minutes, inferior to RT-PCR testing performed at a laboratory, and may not be accepted at your destination. Moreover, no airports currently provide IgM antibody testing for travelers that need that test.
IGeneX provides a quicker turnaround on RT-PCR tests and IgM antibody tests. “We are pleased to be one of the first labs to offer same-day RT-PCR and IgM antibody COVID-19 tests,” said Dr. Shah. “Since the pandemic began, we have been scaling up our infrastructure to the point where we can now offer results in as little as six hours while still maintaining a high level of integrity and accuracy.”