“Mr. Sunshine and Hope”

May 10, 2021

“Mr. Sunshine and Hope” – That’s the sobriquet my friend Joe Brancatelli sardonically tagged me with for planning these sixteen trips over the next ten months:

  • Minneapolis (MSP) in May to our son’s college graduation (family of four)
  • Billings, Montana (BIL) in June/July (just me)
  • BIL again in July (my wife and daughter)
  • Newark (EWR) in July (me and a friend en route to Africa)
  • Johannesburg and Skukuza, South Africa (JNB, SZK) in July/August (a friend and me)
  • Nashville (BNA) in August (taking daughter to college)
  • Fargo, North Dakota (FAR) in August (three family members to a wedding)
  • Topsail Beach, NC (driving, not flying) in September (three family, two cousins, one friend)
  • New Orleans (MSY) in October (my wife and me)
  • New York (JFK) in October (my wife and me to visit NYC)
  • Johannesburg and Skukuza, South Africa (JNB, SZK) in October/November (me and my wife)
  • BNA at Thanksgiving (our daughter flies home from college)
  • BNA at Christmas (our daughter flies home from college)
  • Overseas trip somewhere (Italy? France? Spain? Portugal? South Pacific?) over Christmas/New Year’s (family of four)
  • Newark (EWR) in February (me)
  • Johannesburg and Skukuza, South Africa (JNB, SZK) in February/March (me, a friend, three cousins)

In the face of so much present travel uncertainty, Joe isn’t as optimistic as I am that all those trips will pan out, and he could be right.  But, hey, if you don’t plan anything, then nothing happens for sure.  Me, I’m slogging through, knocking down roadblocks, and figuring to go on as many as I can.

More and more flights are in flux, as I chronicled last time, but I can deal with that and similar challenges like rental car prices skyrocketing and hard-to-book hotels.  It’s getting Covid-19 test results within the required time requirements that has me worried at the moment.

Now that Covid is “going away” in the public mind, suddenly here in Raleigh it’s hard to find anywhere that will guarantee test results (PCR test) returned within 72 hours as required by South Africa and for travel to Europe.  As listed above, my first trip abroad is in late July, two months away, but I’m already checking for how to get the precise required testing and results done.  Sounds simple and straightforward, yet so far, it’s been infuriating for “Mr. Sunshine and Hope” to figure it out.

I thought a logical place to pose the question of where to get tested that would return results within 72 hours was the RDU Airport Authority. after all, RDU has a great website showing impressively-detailed requirements for the USA and countries around the world. My hopes were dashed when my chief RDU contact embarrassingly admitted that the airport hadn’t considered that question.

Looking next at the county health department, I found a URL that shows test locations for today and is updated daily.  PCR tests are free, too, with results claimed to be back “usually” in one to two days. 

However, the county’s drive-thru clinics have become a moving target with test sites in decline as fewer people opt to be tested.  I bookmarked the county as one option, though, assuming the sites are still operating in late July, but continued looking for more certain testing options.

Several friends told me that pharmacies are testing, so I called around to major chains and independently-owned drug stores.  True, every place I spoke to confirmed they are taking CV-19 nose swabs, but none do actual PCR testing.  In every case, the pharmacies wait for a daily pickup by LabCorp, which transports the swabs to its central laboratories for testing.  In every case, the pharmacists told me they could not guarantee I’d get results back within 72 hours of my flights.

Thinking that if I went directly to LabCorp itself the results would come sooner, I tried to reach them by phone, with little luck.  Local LabCorp offices exist only to take blood samples and such, which are then sent off.  Lab technicians working there referred me to the company website or to my primary care physician for a test order.

Since I am enrolled in a “concierge” medical practice, I was able to get an answer quickly from my doctor: No Covid-19 referrals for travel testing; only for coronavirus symptoms.  I guess I could claim I have a cough, slight sore throat, or have been around somebody known to have had Covid, but even that white lie is a bridge too far for me.  So, a dead end, and back to the LabCorp website to see what those options are.

The site for LabCorp’s Covid-19 tests offers an at-home PCR kit, and claims results are available “1-2 days from when your sample is received at the lab.”  Cost is either $119, or zero if these criteria are met:

  • Experiencing mild symptoms
  • Exposed to someone with COVID-19
  • Live or work in a congregate setting
  • Asked to get tested by a healthcare professional, contact investigator, or public health department.

The fee option ($119) lists “Travel” as a reason for paying if none of the criteria are met.  I was thinking of ordering a LabCorp kit this month (not waiting until late July) to see how long the results take to get back and in what form. 

Importantly, I also wanted to confirm that LabCorp verifies that the results are mine and not someone else’s since “at home” infers the devious possibility of a surrogate test subject.  Assuming LabCorp simply takes my word that the nasal swabs come from me and not someone else, I couldn’t help but wonder how easy it might be to fool the airlines. 

I was curious to see how the results are stated as tied to me.  Would the wording be something like “to the best of LabCorp’s knowledge” the test results are mine?  If so, does that equivocation and implied doubt void my results being accepted by an airline for international travel?  Being the obsessively detailed guy I am, I began to think it’s worth $119 to find out.

But before spending over a hundred bucks, I dug deeper into Covid testing requirements to enter South Africa (my first overseas destination) to be sure at-home tests are accepted.  Couldn’t find anything on the United Airlines website about it (I’m flying UA’s new nonstop to Johannesburg from Newark), so I discovered the relevant official South African government sites and poured over several pages before finding the answer at this URL:

Are home PCR tests allowed, which are sent to a testing laboratory? No, PCR tests must be performed by a certified medical practitioner.

Bummer!  Back to square one, which is the county health department mobile clinics.  Like gypsy caravans, they keep moving from place to place. So I’ll have to hunt down the nearest one—assuming they are still operating in July—three days before my international flight.  I hope that a county health department nurse qualifies as a “certified medical practitioner” in the eyes of South African officials.

At the same South African government site I also found this troubling statement pertaining to travel insurance:

What are the requirements for travellers travelling to South Africa by air? All travellers landing at these airports must present a PCR test which is not older than 72 hours from the time of departure from the country of origin to South Africa.  Furthermore, the international travellers should possess a mandatory travel insurance which is supposed to cover the COVID-19 test and quarantine costs.   All these travellers will be subjected to COVID-19 screening on arrival. Those who present COVID-19 symptoms which include elevated body temperatures and flu-like symptoms, will be required to take a COVID-19 test which should be covered by the travel insurance. Should the test results come back positive, the traveller will be subjected to mandatory quarantine, which will also be paid for by the traveller or the travel insurance.  

Another surprise.  I had been assured and reassured several times that travel insurance was not required to enter South Africa.  Another $300-500 if it turns out that I indeed must carry the insurance, so say quotes from Travelex and Travel Guard (AIG), the two big insurance carriers in the travel industry. 

I thought to check with American Express to see if it’s already covered by my Platinum Card, but after waiting nearly 20 minutes for an “Amex insurance team” representative, I gave up. So much for 45 years of loyalty; American Express couldn’t be reached to answer a simple question about travel insurance.

It finally dawned on me to call the South African Embassy in Washington to clarify whether the travel insurance is required at all. A very helpful, experienced (since 2001), knowledgeable, and friendly consular official engaged me in a lengthy discussion. He thought the website must be out of date. We subsequently exchanged email messages so he could make inquiries with officials back in South Africa, and I hope to hear from him in a day or two.

Whatever, I’m still going on all these trips unless the airlines pull the rug out again.  I intend to earn the “Mr. Sunshine” moniker Joe stuck on me.

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