SALT LAKE CITY – As winter hits Utah with the snow and the cold, a tropical vacation probably sounds pretty inviting right now. Destinations like Hawaii and Bermuda are allowing travelers to test for COVID-19 before they board their flight, but the test must be taken and processed in a tight, three-day window.
So, when you need your results as soon as possible, are mail-in COVID tests a good option that won't derail your vacation with a long wait? The KSL Investigators put some kits to the test.
Hawaii, for example
Hawaii is back open after effectively shutting down tourism for most of the year. To slow the spread of the coronavirus, the "Aloha State" required travelers to quarantine for two weeks upon their arrival. Now, Hawaii allows travelers to test before boarding so when they arrive – it is straight to the beach. With one important caveat.
"Travelers wishing to bypass the state's 14-day mandatory quarantine must have their test results from a trusted testing partner prior to departure for the state of Hawaii," announced David Ige, the governor of Hawaii in November.
Travelers not only need a negative COVID-19 test result, but the test must be taken within 72 hours of boarding and from one of the state's approved testing partners.
AZOVA mail-in tests
One of those approved tests is manufactured by AZOVA Health. It's sold at Costco.com. Can we complete the tests, ship them to AZOVA and get our results within that three-day window? The KSL Investigators put it to the test to find out.
The first thing we noticed is that there are two different options: a $129 test you take on your own, or a $139 option where someone watches you take the test through your phone or computer. Hawaii only accepts the test that includes observation to make sure you don't cheat. We ordered one of each.
Though technically the tests themselves are the same, the observation test that Hawaii accepts took about a day to arrive, whereas the non-observation test took four days. Lesson number one: Don't wait until the last minute to order!
Testing the tests
The tests are spit tests. I enlisted the help of KSL investigative producer Sloan Schrage for the non-observation test. He got started spitting into a vial right away while I booked an appointment for someone at AZOVA to watch me take my test. You must reserve an appointment online, and when I opened the site, there were lots of times available with the first slot open in as little as 30 minutes.
I filled my vial while Sloan filled his and we sent them off.
Getting the results
The good news: We both tested negative for COVID-19. We both had our results within 50 hours of sending off the vials, within Hawaii's tight 72-hour time window. When we began this experiment, we did not realize that AZOVA Health is a Utah company. When we discovered the local connection, I took my results to Dr. Cheryl Lee Eberting, the company's CEO.
"We do find that the 72 hours can be very tight for people who are going to Hawaii, for example," said Eberting. "But if you follow the instructions exactly, we can still get it done for you."
Some product reviews are not confident in that claim.
On Costco.com, several people who say they bought and used the test did not get their results in that timeframe.
Eberting said in most of those cases, the test-takers did not properly follow the instructions. She explained that from the time the lab received the mailed-in sample, results are usually delivered within about 24 hours, although she did stop short of guaranteeing any timeframe.
"What do you say to the people who are going, 'I need my results. I've got a flight in like three hours. I'm dying here. I don't have it yet?'" I asked Eberting.
"We say to them, 'I'm going to contact the lab for you personally and make sure we get your results for you,'" she answered.
Comparing turnaround times
Eberting added that many Utahns are buying AZOVA's tests because they do not want to wait in line for their tests and results like they would at a traditional COVID-19 testing center.
"In fact, we actually beat many of the turnaround times for many of the local hospitals here in Utah," Eberting said.
That's a bold claim, so the KSL Investigators tracked down three Utahns who recently got tested at three different hospitals after developing COVID-like symptoms.
One in that group went to Intermountain Healthcare's Alta View Hospital in Sandy.
Between getting an appointment and getting the results, the total time took 56 hours – a little slower than our mail-in test's 50-hour total.
A patient who went to University of Utah Health's Redstone Health Center in Park City got their results in 47 hours start to finish.
And the third Utahn getting tested at Intermountain Healthcare's Salt Lake Clinic waited 42 hours.
All-in-all, AZOVA's turnaround time is pretty comparable to Utah's hospitals and clinics.
Elsewhere in the country where extra-long lines exist, the comparison is even more favorable.
"I've even heard of some patients having to wait three weeks to get a COVID test," said Eberting. "So, this is an excellent solution for people in that situation."
By law, private COVID testing companies are required to share results with state health departments.