Flawed COVID-19 testing protocols for international travel need to be fixed immediately

Nov 18, 2021

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I’m a big proponent of vaccines, masks and COVID-19 testing.

(If you don’t like that, feel free to stop reading now. Seriously.)

In the past two weeks, I’ve taken two trips out of the United States – my first since the pandemic. And in both cases, I’ve been baffled by the COVID-19 testing procedures.

The most recent came during a one-night trip to Montreal to meet with some Air Canada executives.

I got a rapid PCR test in New York Sunday morning, a day before my Monday flight. Canada only requires it to be 72 hours prior, but I’m lucky enough to have a testing location in New York that guarantees results within four hours.

This is a sound policy given the struggles we still have with getting fast, accurate tests nearly two years into this pandemic.

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Upon arrival in Montreal, I was pulled aside for a random test.

Great!

While slightly annoyed at the added time, I honestly appreciated the extra step and level of caution.

But here’s where my frustration starts.

After being swabbed for the PCR test, the nurse released me into the country and said I would get results within 72 hours.

What?

Here I was at a massive, very efficient COVID-19 testing center inside the airport, and the Canadian government couldn’t find a way to process results faster? If you want to have a strong border and keep your country safe, isn’t that step one?

I ended up spending 28 hours in Canada and boarded my flight home to the U.S. and still hadn’t received my test results.

Overall, Canada’s testing policy for international arrivals is great, but if you are going to do random testing, make sure you have the test results before actually letting folks into the country.

Canada has been doing a good job but some of its systems might not be able to handle quick turnarounds. (Photo by Cole Burston/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Related: Canada reopens to Americans — my experience crossing the border

As for reentering the U.S. on Tuesday afternoon? All I had to do was show that same negative test from Sunday morning.

I know that “three days” or “72 hours” has become the accepted standard. It’s close enough to your travel but long enough to let those without easy access to a fast test still get results.

But I find it absolutely ridiculous that the test I needed to get home to New York was the same test I took in New York before leaving the country.

If we are worried about Americans catching COVID-19 in other countries – something possible, even during short trips – then we should rethink our testing requirements.

Should we have rapid antigen tests required within a few hours of travel?

I don’t know the answer, but the current procedures seem like they’re full of holes. (Note: Unvaccinated Americans have additional hurdles to jump through.)

Related: The US requires a negative COVID-19 test taken within 3 days to get in the country. But what if your flight is delayed?

A minor, or maybe not-so-minor, tangent: I’ve flown to California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and Texas this year. None of these domestic destinations required any type of COVID-19 test to visit, nor was I required to take a test to return to New York.

We need the freedom to travel without tons of paperwork and testing. However, there is a disconnect between the testing needed to return from highly vaccinated countries like Canada and the United Kingdom and the lack of testing needed within our own country – one with vastly different state vaccination rates.

But I digress.

My other international trip was to London, at the start of the month.

England doesn’t require tests before arrival for vaccinated visitors. (I took one the day prior anyway; I’d rather cancel my trip than risk being stuck overseas.)

But England does require a COVID-19 test upon your second full day in the country.

I left New York the Sunday night of Halloween, landed in London Monday morning and was required to test by Wednesday but could do it earlier. A confirmation number of your prearranged – and prepaid – test is required by the government for your entry forms, which you must fill out before boarding your flight.

The U.K. policies are not enforced well if you are traveling in from another country. (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Nobody ever checks to see that you actually took the test, though.

I took mine that Tuesday and also used it as my test to reenter the U.S. on that Thursday.

Related: Here’s how I’m navigating the UK COVID-19 testing requirements

Nobody actually reviewed my negative COVID-19 tests before I returned to the U.S. from Canada and England. In both cases, I simply added them to an app and, seconds later, was cleared to get a boarding pass.

COVID-19 testing adds an extra challenge to travel these days. While I do find the time required to fill out different forms annoying, especially since each airline and country has a different process, I’m OK with taking that step if it stops the spread of the virus.

However, these burdensome requirements do very little to actually limit cross-border transmission. They are better than nothing but far from perfect.

I know there are limits to test availability and the speed of PCR tests, but if we are really going to fully reopen international borders and catch breakthrough COVID-19 cases, we need to have more reasonable testing policies.

This is a great opportunity for a group, such as the International Air Transport Association, to lobby governments – and its own airline members – for more standardization and practical policies.

Without those changes, it’s going to be hard for travel to return to normal, whatever that is anymore.

Featured photo by Ergin Yalcin/Getty Images

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