Antigen, PCR, and More: Inside the Complex Process of Planning a COVID Test Before Travel

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One Departures writer relays his arduous—albeit successful—experience with concierge medical services in the age of COVID-19.

Man Plans, God Laughs is both the title of a Public Enemy album and an old Yiddish expression. In the year of COVID-19, it’s an apt descriptive for travel planning. Still, after a Thanksgiving trip to Paris became an impossibility, my wife and I decided to go to St. Barthèlemy the following week instead, and when we found that planes were flying, we were thrilled and booked flights and a villa. The fine print said something about COVID tests. No big deal, right?  

Related: The Shifting Meaning of Home in the Era of a Pandemic

Early in November, we finally read that fine print and realized that to go, we’d have to have complex RT-PCR tests (which take between five hours and several days to yield results) the Friday or Saturday after the Thanksgiving holiday. Our doctors, though, were taking that long weekend off. The same held at the lab that had done my last COVID test. CityMD could do it, but couldn’t guarantee results before we departed at dawn Monday. Our other neighborhood test site was so shabby and had lines so long, we wouldn’t even consider it. 

Then, a neighbor who works for Northwell Health, the New York hospital giant, told us it had an app called LabFly that would send a nurse to our home, conduct the test, and guarantee results in time to fly, for just $19.99 plus the cost of the test, which insurance would cover, so we downloaded the app and set up a date for that Friday. But still, we worried, what if...?

The website for Tradewind, the boutique airline we were flying from San Juan to St. Barth's, offered two backups: mail-in tests and a concierge testing service based in Miami that guaranteed results from a Brooklyn lab with a 12- to 48-hour turnaround. At $390 a head, per its website, this was dear, but still sounded like good insurance, even though insurance wouldn’t cover it. But when I emailed, it turned out that they wanted a $200 premium for a guaranteed Thanksgiving turnaround. 

Their clientele, i.e. the St. Barth's crowd, obviously expects—and can afford—results in both senses of the word, but I didn’t want to pay the premium. So back to Google I did go and with just a bit of effort found LENCO in Brooklyn, a forty-minute drive from my apartment, which would do the test on Saturday, provide same-day results, and insurance would cover the cost. We decided that if LabFly came in first, we’d cancel LENCO, but if not, we’d double the odds of making our flight.

Related: An Insider Shares His 5 Predictions for the Future of Air Travel

LabFly’s lovely nurse showed up with her swabs first thing Friday but we hadn’t factored in a post-Thanksgiving crunch—folks needing tests to get home—which slowed LabFly down; it was processing 8,000 to 12,000 tests a shift, three shifts a day, so to Brooklyn we did go. No lines. No fuss. And Saturday night, LENCO delivered two negatives. Next morning, LabFly confirmed we could fly.  

A few days later, at drinks in Gustavia harbor with David Zipkin, co-owner of Tradewind, we learned that St. Barth's had changed its policy and was allowing entry with a simple antigen test, turn-around time 15 minutes. We’re going back in January. God willing.