While the travel industry waits for a viable, widely available vaccine, testing remains one of the crucial elements for both preventing the spread of COVID-19, and in helping increase the confidence of consumers that they will be relatively safe traveling again.
Throughout smaller nations – including most of the Caribbean – producing a negative COVID test is a requirement for traveler entry. Members of the Royal Caribbean/Norwegian Cruise Line Healthy Sail Panel called “an aggressive testing regimen” the best way to mitigate transmission risk, “regardless of where an individual is from.”
In their report, they call for “a minimum of 1, and preferably 2, preboard negative SARS-CoV-2 test results for guests” and a minimum of 2 preboard, and 1 post-quarantine negative SARSCoV-2 test results for crew members, “presuming feasibility of rapid testing at the pier.”
Meanwhile, more airlines and airports are collaborating on lower cost pre-boarding coronavirus tests that produce more accurate results in less time.
In Germany, Centogene, a company that researches diseases and provides diagnostic testing, has been operating COVID-testing centers in coordination with Lufthansa and local airport authorities since July. At Frankfurt Airport, passengers can be tested the day before traveling or with a fast track solution the same day before departure.
All results are delivered to the passenger via a secure digital platform. Additionally, passengers can opt into an ID confirmation service, assuring authorities that the passengers’ identities correspond with the test results. Lufthansa is hoping to eventually have a test that can provide results within 15 minutes, costing around US $12.
Trying to prove the efficacy of testing, starting in early September at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, McMaster HealthLabs, Air Canada, and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority have been conducting a voluntary COVID-19 Study of arriving international travelers, to try to better understand the impact of quarantine periods and traveler COVID testing.
(McMaster is a non-profit organization that develops COVID-19 research initiatives and testing solutions.)
Beginning Sept.3, international travelers arriving at Toronto-Pearson Terminal 1 have been invited to take part in the study on a strictly voluntary basis, and after providing informed consent.
Consenting passengers provide a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test sample to MHL researchers before leaving the airport, and supply two additional samples self-collected seven and fourteen days after arrival. (The Canadian government currently requires a 14-day quarantine period for all arriving international travelers.) Test results are analyzed at the Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton, and participants are notified electronically of the first results within 48 hours.
Up till now, approximately 13,000 tests have been conducted. Of those, more than 99% have tested negative for COVID-19. Of the less than 1% positive results, more than 80% are being detected during the initial test at the airport, with the rest appearing during the Day 7 test. No positive cases are being detected by the Day 14 test, according to the team conducting the study.
In a recent press statement, Air Canada said, “We are further encouraged in our belief in the effectiveness of testing, including self-administered testing, by the preliminary results from our partnership with MHL and the GTAA.”
As a result, Air Canada is pressing the Canadian government for “a shorter, test-based strategy” to prevent transmission from airline passengers, versus the current 14-day quarantine period imposed on arriving travelers. (Quarantines are widely seen as a bigger deterrent to new travel bookings than even fear of catching the virus itself.)
Now, testing isn’t perfect, as can be seen by what UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard believes were two false positive tests, sandwiching a positive test result on a guest who cruised with his company back in July. As my colleague David Cogswell wrote back in August, UnCruise cancelled a journey when the pre-boarding test performed on one guest, by the Alaska State health department, came back positive three days into the cruise. (Luckily, the ship was in a spot that had cell service at the moment they called.)
The chronology is that the guest’s test prior to embarking on their flight from outside Alaska was negative, as was the test performed by UnCruise onboard the ship after the guest was informed by the state that they were positive. As Blanchard has maintained, false negatives are more common than false positives, so he feels enacting his company’s contingency plan to quarantine passengers and return immediately to Juneau was the right choice for his guests and crew. But TWO false positives on the same individual? Wow.
While that might be enough to make you lose faith in testing, as the world conducts more testing and accumulates larger survey samples [with improved test quality], confidence is growing in how to make travel safer until the world reaches a higher level of herd immunity and vaccine efficacy.Unfortunately, right now we’re a long ways away. A spokesperson for Canada’s Public Health Agency said there are no exemptions from the mandatory quarantine period in the work, despite the Air Canada/McMasters labs study results.
“This is because a negative test for COVID-19 doesn’t prove that a traveler is COVID-19 free,” the spokesperson stated to another media outlet.
According to the Canadian government, at least 28 domestic flights between Sept. 21 and Oct. 2 have had a passenger who tested positive for COVID-19 after their flight. At least 26 of those flights either landed in, or took off from, Toronto.
Another 26 international flights also carried a positive passenger, including an Air Canada flight to Toronto on Sept. 23, from Kingston, Jamaica, a country with rigorous testing requirements, and Air Canada flight from Frankfurt to Toronto on Sept. 26, where testing is widely available, as I wrote above.
What all of this demonstrates to me is that COVID, the way its transmitted, the way it impacts our bodies, and the way we can both detect it and prevent transmission, is complex. Travel, with all of its touch points [e.g. ground transport, activities, travel companions, etc.] makes the formula for transmission even more complex.
We cannot come to confident conclusions about how to prevent COVID’s spread without enough data that the experts can use to guide us about what travel behaviors work best for minimizing exposure and transmission.
If we are going to get out of this, minimizing any further damage, then we need a national testing program available at low costs for all Americans – something UnCruise CEO Blanchard is a strong advocate for – and the travel industry needs to be a big part of that strategy and implementation.
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.