Travelers to the United States: Can they collect their tests on time?


LONDON – Deborah Tudhope grew increasingly anxious. An American lawyer living in London, she hoped to return to the United States in two weeks to see her 96-year-old mother, who lives in a retirement home in Maine. But Omicron’s travel restrictions announced by the White House on Thursday have raised concerns that the trip will not happen.

Ms Tudhope, 72, had to postpone her required coronavirus test the day before her flight, which the airline had already postponed by a day. With the rules seeming to change hour by hour, she said she faced several obstacles: getting out of Britain, entering the United States and visiting her mother at home.

“I don’t know how this is all going to play out,” said Ms Tudhope, who described herself as discouraged, if not surprised, by the turmoil. “But I made sure the flights could be rebooked. “

Such private dramas are unfolding around the world as thousands of people – Americans living abroad and foreigners wishing to visit the United States – grapple with the new complexities of vacation travel in the era. of Covid.

The spread of the Omicron variant over the past week has injected even more uncertainty into an already busy exercise. On Thursday, the Biden administration shortened the time frame for international travelers traveling to the United States to take a Covid test the day before departure, regardless of their vaccination status.

This left potential travelers wondering if they would get the test results in time to complete their flights or worry that their home country might impose more stringent travel bans while they are away.

The United States has not imposed a mandatory seven-day quarantine on arrivals, which many travelers say torpedoed their plans. It also hasn’t improved its standard for an acceptable Covid screening of an antigen on a PCR test, which can take significantly longer to produce results.

But the new one-day window to get tested announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has nonetheless added an additional layer of stress upstream.

Paula Tolton, 23, an American student in Taipei, Taiwan, who plans to return home next month to visit family in Jacksonville, Fla., Said she was concerned the new rules would cause her to fail. his flight. Even the previous testing requirement for the United States, a negative PCR result within three days of arriving in the country, triggered “maximum anxiety,” she said.

“I had this stress before when a PCR test didn’t come back when I was supposed to fly in April,” she said. “I was panicking.”

Public health experts said there was a good reason to shorten the time frame for test results: it would detect more infections in travelers. And since antigen test results are normally available within a few hours, it should be possible to test and get the results within the prescribed time frame.

“A negative test is a good idea, especially since people who are fully vaccinated can transmit the virus,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. But she recognized that the patchwork of travel restrictions and the changing nature of the rules take a heavy toll on people.

“Uncertainty is killing the travel industry and people’s confidence in reservations and travel,” said Professor Sridhar. “They need a standard approach in all countries and stability over time.”

Travel agents have expressed relief that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended a seven-day quarantine. “You don’t go to New York to isolate yourself in a nine-square-meter hotel room,” said Jean-Pierre Mas, president of Entreprises du Voyage, a union representing the main travel agencies and tour operators in France.

After more than a year of pandemic-related disruption, Mr Mas said many travelers are used to testing the requirements and likely would not be put off by the new rules. But he said the lack of certainty – and the feeling that governments were suddenly changing the rules in response to the perceived threat of a new variant – kept people at home. After picking up over the summer and early fall, he said activity had fallen by around 25% in recent weeks, compared to the same period in 2019.

“For the United States, we have sold almost no trips in the past four to five days,” Mr. Mas said, although it remains a popular destination for French tourists, who flock to New York at Christmas. .

What makes the latest turmoil particularly painful for many is that just several weeks ago, the United States eased travel restrictions on international travelers who were fully vaccinated, resulting in a tearful reunion. .

At the same time, travel between Europe and the United States had rebounded after a long hiatus during the early stages of the pandemic. Flights between the United States and Italy have been full until recent days, with bookings almost at the same level as in 2019, according to a spokesperson for Fiavet, the association of Italian travel agents.

British Airways, Air France and United Airlines have added more transatlantic flights, while ITA Airways, an Italian carrier, added a daily service between Rome and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Italian officials said the country was well prepared to deal with an increase in testing for passengers bound for the United States. In the weeks since the government began requiring frequent negative tests for all unvaccinated Italian workers, pharmacies have processed up to a million rapid tests per day.

“The prospect of faster withdrawals for travelers to the United States is not a problem for pharmacies here,” said Marco Cossolo, president of Italy’s largest association of private pharmacies, Federfarma.

South Korea has boosted its capacity to administer an average of 68,000 PCR tests per day in November, according to Seung-ho Choi, deputy director of risk communication at the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Results almost always arrive within 24 hours, he said, although travelers taking early morning flights when clinics are closed may have to look for hospitals that administer tests.

Britain is among several countries that have recently required testing for inbound travelers within a day or two of arrival. Randox Laboratories, a UK company that provides Covid testing for travel, said on Thursday that since announcing the changes for travelers entering Britain last weekend, it had increased PCR testing capacity to its peak pandemic of 180,000 tests per day.

It would also help process testing for travelers to the United States, the company said.

For Europeans with ties to the United States, the new rules are just the last wild card in an ever-changing life already lived.

“What a nightmare, that’s enough! Alice Volpi, 28, said when told of impending US restrictions.

An Italian who was living in New York at the start of the pandemic, Ms Volpi said she could not return home to Italy for several months due to her country’s travel ban. When she finally returned home, a United States travel ban prevented her from returning to see her boyfriend in New York City.

“The most frustrating part is that you can never make a plan more than a week in advance because everything can change every day,” said Ms. Volpi, who insisted that she would continue with her project. to visit her boyfriend on Christmas. “It does not allow me to be serene.

For some Americans living abroad who fear the borders will close if Omicron turns out to be a deadly threat, the solution is to extend their travel times. The testing requirements are stressful, they said, but not as stressful as the possibility that the Biden administration could possibly shut off the routes of travel altogether.

“That’s what worries me the most – not seeing my family,” said Sarah Little, 25, who moved from New York to London in September to study. She had originally planned to return home closer to Christmas, but is now trying to book a flight early next week.

“It would be just devastating if I couldn’t come home,” Ms. Little said.

Gaia Pianigiani and Emma Bubola contribution to reports from Rome; Saskia Solomon and Isabella Kwai from London; Aurélien Breeden from Paris; John Yoon from Seoul and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington.


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