Travel and Coronavirus Testing: Your Questions Answered

Taking a test is the best way to assure yourself and others that you aren’t spreading the virus. Here’s what you need to know.

For those who must travel, or those who are itching to do so, airlines and airports are increasingly offering ways to get tested for the coronavirus ahead of a trip. Taking a test can assure you and others that you aren’t spreading the virus from one place to another.

In recent weeks, some destinations, like Hawaii, New York, Washington, D.C., and some Caribbean countries began allowing people who have tested negative for the virus and can show test results to skip mandatory 14-day quarantines, a process that some view as risky because it is possible that people can take a test, receive a negative result and then contract the virus later.

Are all coronavirus tests the same?

If you want to find out if you currently have Covid-19, you should plan on taking a virus test like a polymerase chain reaction or PCR test. PCR tests are currently considered the gold standard for tests because of their accuracy and reliability. PCR tests can detect an active infection and require a swab in the nose or the back of the throat. Some tests use saliva. The test is highly sensitive and looks for the virus’s genetic material.

Another type of diagnostic test is an antigen test, which detects the presence of a specific viral antigen or bits of coronavirus proteins, implying current viral infection. For antigen tests, a sample is collected by nasal swabbing, with hopes that there are some virus proteins in the sample.

You’ve probably heard of antibody tests, too, but those aren’t what you need in order to travel. An antibody test checks for antibodies, which may tell you if you had a past infection with the virus that causes Covid-19.

Are rapid tests reliable?

How do I know which test to take?

If you’re taking a test specifically because you are about to travel, you should first see if your destination has a list of tests that it will accept. Many places, including Hawaii, Washington D.C., New York and a number of Caribbean countries, specify which tests they will accept.

If you get a test that isn’t approved, you could be forced to quarantine upon arrival or the airline could prevent you from boarding the flight.

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