U.S. travelers who’ve gone abroad have been relying on packable at-home COVID tests to re-enter the country ever since the CDC approved the self-administered tests in May. And they offered some peace of mind, a simpler way to procure a negative COVID test before boarding a flight home . . . until they didn’t.
Last weekend, international travelers planning to use Abbott’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 at-home test faced wait times of three hours or more to log onto the telehealth video call with a certified guide authorized by the manufacturer to supervise the testing procedure. And I was one of those many frustrated customers.
Typically, you’d log into your Abbott Navica account via eMed.com, answer a few questions, and confirm you meet the technical requirements. After that, you’d be connected to a proctor within a few minutes. Once they log on, they’ll walk you through the process—the setup, then swabbing both nostrils, and inserting the swab into test fluid. After a 15-minute wait for results, another proctor will come online and have you hold up the results to your webcam to confirm whether they’re positive or negative. Within moments, the results will appear in the Abbott Navica app and in your email. All in all, the process should take 25 minutes.
When I started the process, I had roughly 23 hours before my flight departed.
I had done my homework before a departing on a two-week trip to Europe at the end of July: I knew I needed four tests after bouncing around three countries, so I bought a six-pack of the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Home Test for $150 (or $25 each) from eMed.com, after AFAR publisher Bryan Kinkade shared how easy they were to use last spring to return home from a trip to Costa Rica.
The company that hosted my trip to Portugal arranged and paid for the tests I needed every 48 hours to enter restaurants in Porto, and I relied on free local testing in Copenhagen to enter Iceland. But I brought along one of the BinaxNOW home tests to re-enter the United States from Iceland, since local testing there costs $55—or more than twice what the at-home tests do.
Unfortunately, between the recent Delta variant surge and a greater number of people returning to the U.S. from international summer vacations, my experience was anything but easy this weekend.
Last Friday, August 6, after returning from a hike to the site of the Fagradalsfjall volcano eruption, I logged onto eMed.com—the site BinaxNOW uses for its video calls—from my hotel room at the Retreat at the Blue Lagoon around 6:30 p.m. to start the test process. Since my flight departed the next day at 5 p.m., I figured I’d have plenty of time to complete the 25-minute process before going to dinner at the Retreat later that night. Instead, I was greeted with a message that read: “We are experiencing unusually high call volumes. Due to increased infection numbers being reported, our wait times are currently more than 3 hours.”
When I clicked through to start the test, I was given a more specific time: “Your estimated wait time is 186 minutes.” With no other options but to wait, I got ready for dinner and set an alarm on my phone for three hours so I could run back to my room and grab my computer in between courses to do the test.
After waiting for three hours, the message on my computer screen changed to “Please hold while we connect you with a certified guide. We will be with you shortly.” At that point, I took my laptop into the lobby of the hotel, which was empty of other guests, so I wouldn’t be sticking swabs into my nose at the dinner table. I sat there for another 10 minutes or so with no connection. I gave up and took my computer back to dinner, where my friend and I watched the screen like a hawk for any changes.
After I finished up the king crab course, the screen changed to say, “One moment. . . .” Once again, I ran down to the lobby where after a few moments a chat screen popped up in the browser with my certified guide asking if I could hear him. I couldn’t.
“I’m sorry, we are unable to hear or see you so we won’t be able to continue with your session,” he typed. “I am going to disconnect your session and you will be able to reconnect with another certified guide. Just click the word ‘Click here to reconnect’ so you don’t have to start from the beginning. Thank you.”
This frustrating exchange went on for another 20 minutes as guide after guide passed me off to try again. One blamed it on the high volume of tests coming in from people returning from the Tokyo Olympics. As I waited to see if they could fix the issue on my laptop, I entered the line again—still a three-hour wait—from my cell phone.
Eventually, my friend came down to tell me the final course—lamb—had been served and we could just book a test locally—she checked and they still had plenty of available time slots to book in the morning. I closed my laptop and exited out of the website on my phone. After dinner finished, I went back to my room and booked a local rapid antigen test via testcovid.is and paid $55.
Thankfully, I was able to get a 9:45 a.m. appointment with results sent to my email within 15 minutes. If local testing wasn’t so widely and quickly available in Iceland, I could’ve ended up having to reschedule my flight home.
Out of curiosity, I checked the eMed website throughout Saturday—before departing—and Sunday–after I returned home to New York—to see if the wait times had started to get better—each time showed waits anywhere between two to three hours.
But by Monday morning, I logged onto the system from the same laptop, and I was greeted with a completely reasonable 36-minute wait time. This time around, my certified guide was able to connect with me with no issues—the sound and video were crystal clear—and walked me through the test process, which took about 5 minutes. Then I waited for 15 minutes for the test results to show up and another guide connected to verify my negative test results with no issues again.
“We can confirm that we are experiencing unusually high call volumes in great part due to increased infection numbers being reported,” said Carlos Correcha-Price, chief communications and marketing officer at eMed, in a statement to AFAR. “We are seeing a massive spike in testing. Our wait times were recently more than 2 hours, and eMed has already added additional staff around the clock to help alleviate the wait times for our customers.”
Adding staff appears to be fixing the issue, but here’s what I would consider doing differently the next time I travel abroad:
1. Start the at-home test process three days before boarding my flight home to the U.S.
Since the CDC’s testing requirement for international arrivals allows test results from within three days before boarding, I should have started the process on Wednesday since my flight departed on Saturday. I waited until Friday to take the test, since my schedule was pretty full. Next time, I’ll build in free time in my schedule earlier because waiting until the last minute is never advisable.
2. Double-check with my hotel how fast its internet service is
While I didn’t have any other issues with my internet connection at my hotel prior to my COVID test connection snafu, Correcha-Price also said, “Some users have reported wait times longer than what I just described above depending on internet connectivity and other factors that may not be associated with our service, including device types and individual settings. eMed’s technology is working as intended and to date, we have not experienced service interruption.” Before you leave, it doesn’t hurt to confirm with your hotel if you’ll have access to internet connection with a minimum bandwidth of 650 kbps required to do the video call.
3. Save time for each individual family member’s test
If you’re traveling with your family, keep in mind that you’ll have to enter the line separately for each person taking a test. Which means, even a short 30-or-so-minute wait for a family of four could equal two hours of waiting total. (You can also log on from different computers, phones, or other devices so you can do it separately at the same time.)
4. Research local testing options as a backup plan
Thankfully, the testing site near where I was staying in Iceland had plenty of appointments for rapid antigen tests that provided results within 15 minutes. While you have to pay the $55 test fee when you book the appointment in Iceland, I was able to walk right into a free drop-in site in Copenhagen earlier during my trip to obtain the test results I needed to enter Iceland. All in all, you’ll want to do the research and have a link handy for the destination you’re flying home from in case you need to book a last-minute appointment or run to a drop-in site.
5. Opt for Ellume’s at-home tests instead
Voluntary Recall Notice: On October 1, 2021, Ellume issued a voluntary recall of specific lots of its Ellume COVID-19 Home Test, due to an “increased chance” that tests may provide an incorrect positive result (also known as a false positive). For more information and to see if your Ellume COVID-19 Home Test is included in the product recall, compare the lot number on the test carton to the lot numbers on Ellume’s website. If you have unused tests from an affected lot, you can request a product replacement via ellumecovidtest.com/return.
I still have five of the BinaxNOW tests, so I’ll stick with its system for now. But if you have yet to purchase tests, consider Ellume. It has partnered with AZOVA video observation services for at-home tests, which the CDC has also approved for travelers entering the United States from abroad. While the test and video service combined cost $50—instead of the $25 the BinaxNOW tests cost when you purchase a six-pack from emed.com—you can actually schedule your video call in advance instead of entering a virtual queue like you do with BinaxNOW.