Airports take off as new frontier in COVID-19 testing

Posted at 11:15 AM, Oct 29, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- The fight against COVID-19 is taking off in a new direction: it’s headed for the friendly skies.

“We wanted to be able to instill confidence in the traveling public that, in fact, it is safe to travel,” said John Tiliacos, vice president of airport operations and customer service at Tampa International Airport.

Tucked away in a corner of the main terminal at the airport sits a coronavirus testing center. This month, Tampa’s airport became the first in the country to offer two types of COVID-19 tests to the flying public. The tests are administered by medical personnel from BayCare Health System.

“There's a lot of people who are asymptomatic carriers and we don't want to invariably go and expose a loved one or a family member,” said Dr. Nishant Anand, Chief Medical Officer for BayCare Health System.

While the tests are required for people traveling to certain international destinations, it can also benefit people traveling within the U.S., by helping them avoid a 14-day quarantine in certain states, if they test negative for the virus.

“Me and three other girlfriends are going on the girl's trip,” said Aneesah Rashad, who is celebrating her birthday with a vacation.

Rashad is heading to Puerto Rico and needed a COVID test to do so.

“It's required in order for you to go to enter into San Juan within 72 hours prior to your travel day,” Rashad said. “I've been tested several times, just to make sure, because I do care about my health and it's important to me.”

The two tests offered include the $57, rapid coronavirus antigen test, which offers test results in 15 minutes. There is also the more accurate, $125 PCR test – which uses a nasal swab – with results within two days. Both tests are covered by most insurance.

“Heaven forbid, if someone does test positive, we tell them to go home and quarantine,” Dr. Anand said. “We tell them what the results are. We then are obligated by law to notify the Department of Health for Hillsborough County, which is a county that we're in.”

Even some airlines, like United, American, Jetblue and Hawaiian, are now offering COVID testing before certain flights.

Earlier this year, passenger numbers cratered at airports across the country, down more than 90% in Tampa alone.

“[It’s] the worst impact that we've seen to travel,” Tiliacos said.

However, the number of people flying is starting to tick back up heading into the holiday season. The coronavirus testing center is open at a time when it could become vital.

“We hope that other airports replicate this,” Tiliacos said.

Since Tampa International Airport opened their testing site, several others have followed suit, including in Oakland, Boston and New York.