Getting an Antigen Test to Travel to Panama… Ugh!

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Getting an Antigen Test to Travel to Panama… Ugh!

Yeah… ugh. What a mess things are. As you read this, we should be just hours away from flying back to Panama. The key to making this happen… finding a place to get an antigen test done.

Oh, and we needed to take the test within 48 hours of our scheduled arrival time in Panama. And somehow we had to have the negative results in hand in that small window of time. That can still be a real hurdle and has proven to be somewhat of a hassle for people to make happen.

What’s an antigen test, why do you need one, and where do you get it done?

I’ll fill you in on this as well as why this is such a pain in the butt.

The current “rules” to get back into Panama

Starting October 12, 2020, Panama is allowing tourists back into the country. However, it’s not going to be easy for folks to do right off the rip.

The Health Ministry issued Decree 1089 on September 23, 2020. Here’s the relevant part of the document for us right now:

Articulo 2. Toda persona nacional, residente o extranjera que pretenda ingresar al territorio nacional, presentará a su llegada al país, el Certificado de Prueba de Hisopado/PCR o antígeno negativo, con un máximo de cuarenta y ocho (48) horas y podrá ingresar al país sin necesidad de cumplir con aislamiento obligatorio, cumpliendo a su vez con todas las medidas de bioseguridad establecidas por el Ministerio de Salud.

Articulo 3. Toda persona nacional, residente o extranjera, que a su Ilegada al país que no porte el Certificado de Prucba de Hisopado/PCR o antigeno negativo, según lo indica el artículo 2 del presente Decreto Ejecutivo, tendrá la obligación de realizarse una prueba rápida, previo a su registro en migración del Aeropuerto, la cual será cargada a costo del viajero.

Según el resultado de la prueba, al viajero se le aplicarán las siguientes medidas:
1. Si el resultado de laprueba rápida sale negativo, estará exento de cumplir con el aislamiento obligatorio.

2. Si la prueba de Hisopado/PCR o antígeno sale positiva, la persona pasará a aislamiento obligatorio en un hotel hospital designado por el Ministerio de Salud. A los siete (7) días se le realizará una prueba de antígeno. Si el resultado es positivo, deberá culminar el aislamiento de catorce (14) días y si el resultado es negativo, termina su aislamiento.

Wait… say what?? Let’s check what good old Google Translate thinks of this:

Article 2. Any national, resident or foreign person who intends to enter the national territory, will present, upon arrival in the country, the Certificate of Swab Test / PCR or negative antigen, with a maximum of forty-eight (48) hours and may enter to the country without the need to comply with mandatory isolation, in turn complying with all the biosecurity measures established by the Ministry of Health.

Article 3. Any national, resident or foreign person, who upon arrival in the country who does not carry the Certificate of Swab Test / PCR or negative antigen, as indicated in article 2 of this Executive Decree, will have the obligation to perform a test fast, prior to its registration in Airport migration, which will be charged at the cost of the traveler.

Depending on the result of the test, the following measures will be applied to the traveler:
1. If the rapid test result is negative, you are exempt from complying with mandatory isolation.

2. If the swab / PCR or antigen test is positive, the person will go to mandatory isolation in a hospital hotel designated by the Ministry of Health. At seven (7) days you will have an antigen test. If the result is positive, you must complete the fourteen (14) day isolation and if the result is negative, your isolation ends.

Ok, that’s a little easier for me to understand. Ok, so let’s see… it looks like all we need to do is get a negative PCR or antigen test taken no more than 48 hours prior to arrival in Panama. I checked and the official tourism site, Visit Panama, confirms this information as well.

Hold up – 48 hours?!!! How the heck are we going to get a test done less than 2 days before arrival (not departure) and have the results already in hand?! That’s a real feat in this current day!

This should become easier over time as testing becomes more readily available. It also looks like some airports and airlines are going to start offering onsite testing eventually. But until this becomes widespread, this decree is going to be a headache for those of us trying to get to Panama sooner than later.

But Jim, did you see the part that if you don’t have a negative test, you can just get a rapid result one done at the airport in Panama?

Ah, that’s very astute of you to notice that, my dear reader. And that’s true, except for one small problem – the airlines are required (by Panama, I assume) to check that you have negative test results in-hand during your check-in. I verified that to be the case with United.

So why tell you that you can get a test at the airport in Panama if you can’t get to that airport without having a negative test anyway? I couldn’t tell you. That’s life, my friends – you just gotta roll with it.

What’s an antigen test?

But wait a minute – they do say that you could get a PCR or an antigen test. A lot of us are familiar with the PCR test, but what’s this antigen test they’re accepting?

Here’s the deal – it’s not the antibody test you might have heard about. As the CDC puts it:

Antibody tests check your blood by looking for antibodies, which may tell you if you had a past infection with the virus that causes COVID-19.

The antibody test is just checking to see if you ever had the virus. It’s also known not to be very reliable.

But the Panamanian government (and the airlines) aren’t talking about the antibody test – they’re accepting the antigen test. So what is this test all about?

The CDC can give you some nice formal insight into the antigen test, but here are some key points:

The “gold standard” for clinical diagnostic detection of SARS-CoV-2 remains RT-PCR.

The sensitivity of rapid antigen tests is generally lower than RT-PCR. The first antigen tests to have received FDA EUAs demonstrate sensitivity ranging from 84.0%-97.6% compared to RT-PCR. Antigen levels in specimens collected beyond 5-7 days of the onset of symptoms may drop below the limit of detection of the test. This may result in a negative test result, while a more sensitive test, such as RT-PCR, may return a positive result.

In a nutshell, the PCR test is more accurate. However, it takes a while to get the results back because a lab has to perform more intense testing on the sample. The antigen test, however, is still pretty accurate but the turnaround time is generally only about 15 minutes because it doesn’t need to be sent off to a lab.

Well, if it’s good enough to let us in, the antigen test is the only one that makes sense for us to make this trip happen! The bad news is that we still have to get the over-sized Q-Tip jammed up our noses straight into our brains.

Where to get an antigen test

Ok, so we know getting an antigen test is the way to go. We started with the big-name chains like CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgreens, etc. However, we kept running into one or more of these three issues:

  • They’re prioritizing or only accepting patients with current symptoms.
  • They’re not accepting minors for the testing.
  • Although the websites show rapid-results testing available, there are no locations that seem to offer it anywhere near us.

Like the devoted parents we are, we decided we didn’t want to leave Faith here when we head to Panama so we needed another option. Luckily, Faith’s pediatrician said they can do the test for her and they usually get results back within 24 hours… but no guarantee. This isn’t stellar, but it was the best option we had for her for now.

Even if Faith was covered (sort of), that still left both me and Lisa, and I struggled to find a place to get rapid results with the antigen test. I called the Ohio Department of Health and the only thing she could offer was to tell me to go to their website (she really just wanted to get off the phone).

So I did. I went to the section of Testing and Community Health Centers. The good thing is that it lets you filter by county or zip code. The bad news is that you can’t filter to find out which type of test(s) were offered and what the turnaround time would be.

And so I just started calling a ton of the places on the list in Cuyahoga and Summit counties. No one seemed to offer rapid results for the PCR or antigen test. It seems like this is still not common in the Cleveland/Akron area yet.

Expanding our search out a bit, Lisa found a place that offered 15-minute results in Columbus, which is about a two-hour drive away. So obviously this isn’t ideal – we’d be driving two hours to spend a few minutes taking our antigen tests and then driving back. What a waste of time.

But it is what it is – we didn’t see any other options and they also were accepting minors as patients. So we scheduled appointments for all three of us to be around 46 hours before the time we were supposed to arrive in Panama to leave a little bit of a buffer.

The double-edged sword is that you didn’t need a doctor referral. They had a doctor there who would take care of that for you. However, you had to pay for that as well. So the total cost for the visit was going to be $145 each.

Despite all of this, we accepted that we just needed to do this and had it lined up… and then we got lucky.

Lisa and Faith were volunteering for a Make-A-Wish event at the zoo here. Don’t worry, it’d be considered COVID-safe with how they set it up. But while they were there, Lisa was talking to some other Make-A-Wish folks there about our whole fiasco of how we have to drive to Columbus for our antigen tests.

Wouldn’t you know that someone knew of a place that was doing the rapid antigen testing here in Cleveland? It’s a chain called Walk In Urgent Care and Lisa immediately texted the info to me. So I gave them a ring and sure enough, they offer 20-minute rapid results for the antigen test. They also except minors for the testing.

As a bonus, they have a location in Broadview Heights, which happens to be right next-door to a bar I spent a lot of time frequenting back in the day. The facility is only about a half-hour away from my in-laws’ house where we’re staying so that’s fantastic.

Walk in Urgent Care

So everything looks good except for two things.

  1. Without symptoms or exposure, insurance won’t cover the costs. That cost is $155 each… ouch.
  2. This is a walk-in clinic – no appointments. When I talked to the receptionist on the phone, she was guessing we’d likely have an hour wait.

Ok, so it’s not perfect, but it’s still hopefully better than a two-hour drive both ways. We put it in the calendar to arrive there about 48 hours before our scheduled arrival time in Panama. I took into consideration the time zone difference as well. The longer it takes them to get to our test, the bigger the buffer of time we’ll have on that 48-hour maximum Panama is allowing.

Taking the antigen test

We just took the test yesterday so here’s the gist…

We got to the Walk In Urgent Care facility at about 3:22 pm. The parking lot was full and I went in to scope it out. I’m happy to say that they weren’t having patients sitting in the waiting room. The receptionist had me sign in with my name and phone number and told me that they’d call me when they were ready. She also said it was pretty busy.

But it really was along the lines of what we expected time-wise. She called me at 4:36 pm so that was just over an hour of waiting… we still would have been driving if we had to make the trek to Columbus!

We walked in and she took our driver’s licenses and insurance information. Fingers crossed that insurance covers it but I guess we’ll find out!

Then she escorted to an exam room and handed us a couple of forms to fill out. One was a registration sheet and the other was the actual results sheet where they just had us fill out our basic info.

About the time that we finished filling the forms out, the nurse practitioner came in to give us our test. She said this wasn’t like the PCR test where they go up into your nasal cavity. For the antigen test, the swab was just going to go in a little bit (I’d say it was probably about halfway up our noses). That was some great news!

Regardless, all I wanted to do was get some pictures of Faith getting it done since she wanted to go first. Then I just zone out and stared at her getting it done (knowing my turn would be soon!). She’s still pretty cute though so here’s a random picture of her after the test…

Faith after her test

The doctor put the swab up her nose for a handful of seconds (maybe 10 seconds) and then did the other side. Easy peasy. She did the same for Lisa…

Getting an Antigen Test to Travel to Panama… Ugh! - Lisa getting her test done

My turn! It wasn’t too bad and didn’t hurt at all, but it was certainly not comfortable. It just made your nose itch with a weird tickle while it was happening.

Getting an Antigen Test to Travel to Panama… Ugh! - Jim getting the test done
I tried to smile for the picture but now I just look creepy weird!

But look – we were done at exactly 5:00 pm. That’s not too shabby. We went out to the car and were told to come back in to pick up the results in 20 minutes.

Negative for each of us and we have the paper to prove it.

COVID-19 Reporting Results
It’s funny they didn’t fill in the collection time – we could have gone any time we wanted and just put in what we wanted later.

Boom, mission accomplished!

With our negative results in hand, we’re now ready to head back to Panama. We have a long day tomorrow – first, we fly from Cleveland, Ohio to Panama City, Panama very early in the morning. This will be about 7½ hours of flight time since we’re going through Houston instead of the 6 hours if we had gone through Miami.

Once we get to Panama City, we then have a driver taking us from the Tocumen International Airport to Boquete. That’ll likely end up being around 8 hours. We won’t get back to our place in Boquete until late at night.

I’m sure we’ll be exhausted, but it’ll be great to get back to Panama again!

If Panama’s on your radar as a possible place to retire to, check out Retire in Panama Tours. It’s a first-rate way to see different parts of the country, learn about the pros and the cons of living here, meet other ex-pats living here, and gain a lot of the right resources to make the transition easier (immigration attorneys, for example).

Oscar, Rod, and Megan are great people, too. They have the knowledge to guide you through Panama, answer your questions, and ensure that Panama’s the right place for you. Check out Retire in Panama Tours for more info!

One last important note – if you’re following along because you’re planning on making a trip into Panama, be sure to check out the “Safety Guidelines” at Visit Panama. The country is requiring that you fill out a traveler’s affidavit before coming into the country. Follow the instructions on this site carefully. I’m working on it now and it’s one heckuva project!

Have you considered international travel in the near future? What kind of roadblocks are you seeing?

Thanks for reading!

— Jim

You know you wanna share this!!

12 thoughts on “Getting an Antigen Test to Travel to Panama… Ugh!”

  1. Wow you got it done! Seemed like an impossible mountain to climb when you described the time frame you had to work with 🙀. Congratulations 🤗. Were you able to vote? This is such an important election, hopefully you figured out that obstacle too🤞
    Can’t wait to hear how life is back in Panama. Best to your family

    1. Thanks, Kathy – we still have a couple of hurdles before we get back there tomorrow but it’s crazy that everything’s coming together again.

      We did both vote already. Since we anticipated that we would be in Panama earlier this year, we signed up and received our ballots electronically to print out and mail in… mission accomplished!

  2. Congratulations on getting this all set up and accomplished, and bonus points for the near-bar location, too! I enjoyed the humor with which you wrote this so much I put off going to my house painting job just to finish it. 🙂 Good luck with the trip and keep your posts coming.

  3. Wow, they really make you jump through the hoops to travel these days! Seems like you got the job done, so good job Jim!

    Can’t wait to hear about your *new* adventures in Panama!

  4. What luck your wife was able to find that clinic nearby. Do good get good is what I always say. Nothing like saving some time off the highway. I feel fortunate that my company offers free testing for us, thus I’ve become a pro at getting the nose poked once a week. Definitely not a pleasant experience.

    Glad your back in Central America. Looking forward to reading about what’s next.

  5. Have a safe trip! Jeez, that’s a lot of trouble to go through.
    I’m running into a lot of problems with traveling to Thailand too.

    Here’s the short version for Thai passport holders.
    Mandatory quarantine for 14 days after arrival.
    One flight from the US to Thailand per day and I can only buy a one-way ticket.
    I’m not sure when I’ll be able to come back if I go. That’s the real problem so I’m putting it off for now. 🙁

    1. Wow, that does sound like a lot of hassle and a little scary not to know when you can get back after you leave. Not having a 9-5 though gives you more flexibility though to at least be able to consider if it makes sense even with those factors. That’s a tough decision because I know how much you want to be able to see your parents. You know I wish you the best, my friend.

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