Test prep for first Covid-era international trip

July 27, 2021

I’m booked to fly to Johannesburg on Thursday, July 29, my first trip overseas since the pandemic shut down foreign travel in March, 2020.  Just two days before finally leaving the country again.  I’m stoked!  Candidly, though, I am also nervous and obsessed about meeting the testing requirements going over.  It’s the timing of the test and adequacy of the credentials that have me fidgeting. 

Like every country I’m aware of, South Africa obliges a negative PCR Covid test for entry 72 hours before the flight.  My question is, What does that mean exactly?  The language at the SA government website reads:

“All international travellers arriving at the airports listed in paragraph (a) [includes Johannesburg OR Tambo Airport] must provide a valid certificate of a negative COVID-19 test, recognised by the World Health Organisation, which was obtained not more than 72 hours before the date of travel.”

It says from the DATE of travel, not the hour of departure on that date of travel.  I believe that means the test can be at any time on the third day prior to the travel date. 

In my case I am on the nonstop United flight from Newark scheduled to depart at 8:45 PM Thursday, July 29.  If the test had to be no more than 3 days (72 hours) prior to the HOUR of departure, then I couldn’t get the test earlier than 8:45 PM on Monday, July 26 (yesterday). 

But no testing authority is open at 8:45 PM on any night, necessitating a wait until the following morning (today, Tuesday, July 27).  Since PCR test results can take 24-72 hours to be reported, taking the test on July 27 might not produce results until after my flight is due to leave on July 29. 

Which is a classic Catch-22 situation.  Hence the more reasonable “72 hours before the DATE of travel” rule—at least, I hope that is the correct interpretation.

The United website proclaims my specific personalized guidelines as:

  • Results must be issued no more than 72 hours before your departure from Newark (EWR)
  • Based on your itinerary, an acceptable test should be dated no earlier than Jul 26, 2021 8:45 PM

But does that mean a test RESULT should be dated no earlier than then?  Or the test itself?  Despite the ambiguous language, I am counting on it meaning the result. 

My county health department has several Raleigh-area sites where Covid-19 PCR tests are administered daily, and I was tested yesterday, July 26, three days prior to my travel date. The results came back today, July 27, which was a fast 24 hours (I tested negative, thank goodness). No cost to me at all.  

The document result is dated July 27 (today), which should satisfy both United’s dictum and the South African requirements as stated on the official government site (above).  But of course the test date is shown as July 26 (yesterday).

So, just to be sure, I returned for a second Covid PCR test today.  Can’t hurt, I figured, in case either the airline or the South African government has heartburn about the date on the first test.  In fact the nurses yesterday encouraged me to come back as often as I wanted, but especially today, as they were not themselves certain about whether the test date or the result date met the 3-day rule. 

Sure enough, when I arrived today and explained my rationale for coming a second day for a second test, the lead nurse nodded sagely and said, “Send TODAY’S test result to the airline, not yesterday’s!” 

If I was flying from LAX, I wouldn’t have this time conundrum. I could opt for a new service there offering immediate PCR test results:

LAX Now Offering 1-Hour COVID-19 Tests – LA Weekly – Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) announced it is offering COVID-19 tests that deliver results within 1 hour. The polymarese chain reaction (PCR) tests will be available at the Tom Bradley International Terminal from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily and may require an appointment depending on demand.

However, I’d have to pony up $199 for the privilege.  Whereas both yesterday’s and today’s county PCR tests were free, the cost bundled into the annual health services budget.

Now the second issue:  Sure, I have a negative test document, but I question whether it meets the credentials requirements.  Its heading only says “Optum Serve” and “LHI” without an address or contact data.  No phone number or email. 

Is that sufficient? When I returned today for my second test, that same nurse in charge of the site strongly assured me that it is.  I want to believe her, but I don’t know for sure.  Nonetheless, I uploaded the PDF to the United Airlines website as requested, and I emailed an e-copy to the South African health authorities as requested. 

Just the same, I have no certainty that the document is “recognized by the World Health Organization” or that it meets the United criteria of “lab or office where the test was administered.”  If not, well, then I will deal with it.  Americans are flying to South Africa every day, and I have yet to read horror stories of well travelers being ordered into quarantine or, worse, sent home.

In addition to which, if today’s test results come back tomorrow as quickly as yesterday’s results did today, then I will upload the second test result to UA.com and dispatch another email to the South African health services folks with the PDF attached.  Naturally, I will also take several hard copies with me.

No more obsessing.  I’ve done all I can to prep for the trip, test-wise and every other way, including downloading the South African COVID Alert SA app, prefilling the South African travel health questionnaire which I found at the very helpful SA Airlink website.  I even completed the Kruger gate entry forms, compulsory due to Covid.

Now all I have to worry about is the CDC test requirements for returning home: much less stringent (can be a quick antigen test or PCR) and much clearer about timing (any time three days in advance of flight date, regardless of when the flight actually departs on that date).  My plans are to get a PCR test done at the Skukuza Doctors Office in the Kruger three days before my flight back. 

As a backup, I also purchased two of the new Abbott Labs at-home Covid antigen test kits that United and several other airlines have been touting. The tests are CDC-approved because they are administered in conjunction with www.emed.com, where a live person will monitor me taking the test by using the video camera on my phone.  Results are later posted on the Navica app which has been downloaded to my phone.  It should be fascinating to see how this works from an African wilderness area surrounded by African wildlife.

4 thoughts on “Test prep for first Covid-era international trip

  1. Great job at researching the test requirements. You’ve done everything you can to get in to South Africa and out again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s