Hours in line or a $110 test: How the COVID test shortage is 'frustrating' Puerto Rico visitors

·6 min read

Puerto Rico resident Sarah Molinari was looking forward to spending time in New York this week to catch up with family and celebrate the holidays. What she didn't see coming were the hours spent scrolling through COVID-19 testing center websites to make sure she could fly home Tuesday.

While traveling to the U.S. territory used to be a breeze for Molinari and other vaccinated travelers, that changes Monday when Puerto Rico starts requiring all travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before arriving.

The new rule comes as the U.S. finds itself in the midst of yet another coronavirus test shortage, with consumers facing limited sales at retailers and long lines at testing centers.

“I was getting really frustrated, thinking about how do I plan and make sure I get this test in time?” Molinari said. "I have no problem with the policy itself. It's more of the inadequacy of testing on a national scale right now that's making these policies really complicated."

Testing requirements are nothing new in the age of COVID-19, but travelers are finding it more difficult – and more expensive – to visit certain domestic destinations amid the latest testing shortage.

New COVID testing requirements to enter Puerto Rico begin Monday

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced the rule change Monday, one week before the new rules were set to go into effect.

Starting this Monday, all passengers arriving on domestic flights must show a negative coronavirus test taken no more than 48 hours before arrival, regardless of vaccination status. (Currently, only unvaccinated domestic travelers are required to show proof of a negative test.)

People are seen on a beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 15, 2020.
People are seen on a beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 15, 2020.

Discover Puerto Rico, the territory's destination marketing organization, told USA TODAY that PCR and rapid tests are accepted, but at-home tests cannot be used.

"The government of Puerto Rico, along with Discover Puerto Rico, are committed to protecting and prioritizing the health and safety of all on the Island; residents and visitors alike," reads a statement from Discover Puerto Rico. "The changes to local guidelines made by Governor Pierluisi and the Health Department this week reflect the recent and rapidly changing landscape of COVID-19, which required immediate action."

Officials "highly suggest" travelers test before departure, but passengers who arrive without a negative coronavirus test will have 48 hours to take a test upon arrival. Tests are available at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, and Discover Puerto Rico noted that travelers can also schedule a test at a local pharmacy. Those who don't get tested in time face a $300 fine.

Travelers who test on the island do not need to quarantine while they wait for results, according to Discover Puerto Rico, but unvaccinated travelers will need to quarantine seven days after arrival, even with a negative test.

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Difficulties getting tested

While post-arrival testing is an option, Molinari said the Caribbean island has its own testing supply issues. Discover Puerto Rico’s website says travelers can get a test on-site at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport after arrival, but travelers should be prepared to pay $110 for the service.

“I can't do that,” said Molinari, who was surprised to learn the test’s price tag.

But finding a test stateside is also a challenge.

"Friends that were going to the public testing sites around New York were telling me about hourslong waits," she said. "Some of them show up at one site, wait for hours and then they would run out of tests. So my thought was ... I really just might not get a test when I need it."

Eventually, after about four hours trying to track down a test her insurance would cover, Molinari found a clinic that could offer her an antigen test at no cost.

“I have access to the technology and the information, and I have the time to navigate this process, whereas, for many others, that's not the situation that they're in,” Molinari said. “So if this was hard for me, my question is, how is someone else supposed to do this?”

Other travelers have taken to social media with their concerns over finding a test in time.

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Hawaii, US Virgin Islands: Other testing requirements for domestic flights

White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Thursday that the federal government does not plan to require testing for domestic air travel at this time.

"We still require masks on airplanes, of course. We've also increased the fee on, if people do not wear masks on airplanes," she said. "Rules, as you know, for international travel are different ... to help keep COVID cases out of this country and delay any new possible variant from coming into the country."

All U.S. flights – domestic and international – require masks through at least March 18. International flights into the U.S. also require a negative pre-departure viral coronavirus test taken no more than one day before travel.

A health worker performs a Covid-19 test at a drive-up testing center operated by the Puerto Rico Health Department at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium parking lot, in San Juan, Puerto Rico on December 18, 2021.
A health worker performs a Covid-19 test at a drive-up testing center operated by the Puerto Rico Health Department at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium parking lot, in San Juan, Puerto Rico on December 18, 2021.

Even so, some domestic destinations have taken it into their own hands to add more stringent entry requirements.

► Hawaii: Unvaccinated U.S. travelers flying into Hawaii can take a test to avoid a 10-day quarantine. The state accepts Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests, or NAATs, from a trusted travel partner taken no more than 72 hours before departure.

► U.S. Virgin Islands: Domestic travelers 5 and older flying into the U.S. Virgin Islands must submit a negative antigen or NAAT test within five days of travel, including those who have been fully vaccinated outside the Virgin Islands.

Northern Mariana Islands: As of Monday, all fully vaccinated travelers must be tested for the coronavirus upon arrival. Travelers must quarantine while they wait for their results. Unvaccinated travelers must quarantine at a designated government facility for seven days and will be tested after the quarantine period ends. If their test is positive, they will be isolated for another 10 days at the facility.

American Samoa: The U.S. territory currently limits entry to essential purposes.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Puerto Rico travel: Domestic flights to require testing before arrival

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