Incoming passengers from specific countries can get free COVID-19 testing at 4 US airports

Dec 15, 2021

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expanded airport testing surveillance to track the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus among international arrivals from certain countries, including Americans visiting those places, at four U.S. airports.

With holiday travel near, those traveling through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) can elect to get a post-travel test at the airport before heading home, saving a trip to CVS or the cost of an at-home test down the line.

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At the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC initially checked the temperatures of passengers from Wuhan, China, arriving at JFK, EWR and SFO, a proactive arrival screening measure the CDC had not implemented since the Ebola outbreak six years prior.

The agency would refrain from taking similar steps again until September 2021, when they launched a COVID-19 biosurveillance program to test travelers arriving from India at the same three airports. Last month, the CDC expanded testing operations to ATL, in addition to opening up free testing to individuals from five more areas — the United Kingdom, Brazil, Southern Africa, Germany and France.

A passenger from Italy administers a self-collected nasal swab on the first day of a new rapid COVID-19 testing site for arriving international passengers at LAX on Dec. 3. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Testing sites vary by airport, but each provides two types of tests for travelers arriving from any of the above destinations at no cost, through a joint collaboration between the CDC, XpresCheck and testing manufacturer Ginkgo Bioworks.

“The first [type of test] is a ‘pooled’ PCR test, meaning several passengers’ samples are taken at the airport, combined with other samples and tested as a group and sequenced if positive,” a CDC spokesperson said via email. “The second type of test involves providing passengers with an at-home specimen collection kit that passengers submit for an individual PCR test 3-5 days after arrival into the United States.”

Participation is voluntary, though the CDC encourages all international travelers to get tested within three to five days of entering the U.S.

“Through this program, results are provided to passengers and public health authorities to help interrupt the chain of transmission in US communities, and detect variants of concern entering the United States,” XpresSpa Group said in a statement on Nov. 30.

Related: Have a backup: 5 tips to help you navigate international travel right now

Regardless of origin, all incoming travelers to the U.S. must provide contact information to airlines before boarding their flight to facilitate COVID-19 contract tracing, per earlier guidance issued by the CDC in October.

“This will allow airlines to better coordinate with public health agencies to share information when needed to keep the public safe and informed, and strengthen their ability to rapidly identify and contact people in the U.S. who may have been exposed to a communicable disease, such as COVID-19,” the CDC said at that time.

More than 6,000 travelers have participated in the CDC’s biosurveillance program thus far. Testing sites are located in international arrivals, specifically Terminal 4, Level 1 at JFK; Terminal B, Level 3 at EWR; Terminal 3, Level 2 at SFO; and in the International Terminal/Federal Inspection Service area at ATL.

Separately, SFO is currently operating a similar program in conjunction with the California Department of Public Health, to “equip travelers with registered self-testing kits allowing the CDPH to monitor for COVID-19 variants in the state and develop mitigation strategies,” according to Doug Yakel, a spokesperson for SFO.

The program, which was recently reinstated earlier this month, provides international arrivals with two free Abbot BinaxNow test kits and a PCR test kit, the first of which is to be self-administered on the day of arrival and the second test three to five days later. If either test is positive, participants are directed to send the results of a PCR test into a state facility monitoring variants of COVID-19.

“The goal of both programs is the same: identify and track new variants of COVID,” Yakel said.

As of Dec. 2, the Los Angeles County Department of Health is also offering free rapid tests to international arrivals at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Related: New indoor mask mandate takes effect in New York as Philly adds indoor dining restrictions

Featured photo of a medical worker administering a COVID-19 test at the Dignity Health-GoHealth Urgent Care testing site in the international terminal at SFO on Dec. 2 by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

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