How Some Canadian Travelers Get Free COVID-19 Tests in the United States to Return Home

When Ian Hutcheon asked about getting a COVID-19 test last month at a Walgreens pharmacy in Gold Canyon, Arizona, before his flight home to Calgary, he got a pleasant surprise.

“I happened to ask to speak to the pharmacist, who said, ‘Oh, we can test you for free,'” Hutcheon said. “I was a little disbelieving, but he insisted.”

Travelers entering Canada must provide evidence of a negative molecular COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of their entry. And these molecular tests – such as the popular PCR test – can cost hundreds of dollars.

As a result, Canada has test requirements triggered protests from politicians and tourism groups on both sides of the border between Canada and the United States, who complain that the tests can be costly.

But CBC News interviewed six Canadians who recently traveled to the United States and received a free molecular test at a pharmacy or clinic before returning to Canada.

“It’s amazing to think that people pay $ 200 for those tests,” said Andrew D’Amours, co-founder of travel information website Flytrippers.

D’Amours from Trois-Rivières, Que., Has taken three free tests in the United States and written on the subject for his side.

“It’s so easy to get it for free,” he said.

Ian Hutcheon and Colleen McMechan of Calgary each received a free COVID-19 test at a Walgreens location in Arizona last month before returning to Canada. (Posted by Ian Hutcheon)

However, there are caveats: Travelers may not be guaranteed to get their test results on time, and they may not find free tests at their U.S. destination.

But the stars suited Hutcheon and his wife, Colleen McMechan. At Walgreens, they each took a self-administered free Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) test, which is listed as a accepted sample by the Canadian Government.

The couple had booked their tests online a day in advance, and listed their hotel when asked to provide a US address. Hutcheon said they did not face any problems as they drove their rental car to Walgreens the following day to take the test at the pharmacy’s drive-thru test site.

“They took the swab, and about two hours later, the results popped up in my email inbox,” he said. “We printed them and took them with us to the airport, and it all went smoothly.”

Why are the tests free?

The tests that Hutcheon and other Canadian travelers have received are actually not free, but instead funded by the U.S. government. It has taken steps to do so low or free COVID-19 tests available to everyone in the United States, including those who do not have U.S. health insurance.

“They want people to be tested,” said Jeremy Gelbart, co-founder of BeeperMD, a COVID-19 testing company that comes to people’s homes – or hotel rooms – to provide free PCR tests. (However, people who order a sample the same day for one person must pay a reservation fee.)

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BeeperMD serves customers in New York City and most regions of Florida. The company has already provided free trials to thousands of Canadian travelers, including snowbirds, Gelbart said.

BeeperMD typically provides test results within 36 hours and will do everything they can to ensure travelers get their results within Canada’s required 72-hour window, he said. But he warns that there are no guarantees for non-paying customers.

As a precaution, Gelbart advises travelers to book their free trial a few days in advance.

“If people are prepared, they will feel good,” he said. “We try to be as accommodating as possible.”

Quick NAAT tests

Four of the interviewed Canadians used a Walgreens drive-thru site to take a free, self-administered NAAT test, which the pharmacy chain calls an ID NOW test. Each traveler said they pre-booked their test online at least one day in advance and got their results within three hours of testing.

D’Amours has twice taken a NAAT test at Walgreens: once in May in Newark, NJ, and a second time Sunday in Baton Rouge, La. He said the NAAT tests are the best option for Canadians because they give fast results.

“I would say it’s a game changer.”

Several Canadians told CBC News that they received free, self-administered COVID-19 tests via a Walgreen drive-thru site. (Posted by Andrew D’Amours)

Walgreens did not respond to requests for comment. However the pharmacy chain’s website states that it offers free COVID-19 tests at selected locations.

It also states that PCR test results are typically delivered within 48 hours, but without warranty. However, its NAAT test is performed on site and the results are available within 24 hours.

Walgreens also states that customers must present a valid state ID or driver’s license and insurance card.

None of the people interviewed by CBC said they were denied a Canadian driver’s license and no U.S.-based health insurance.

“We just [showed] our Canadian driver’s IDs and it worked just fine, “said Haris Naeem Nini of Milton, Ont. He and his wife, Mariam Haris, each received a free NAAT test at a Walgreens drive-thru in the Buffalo area in May. .

Haris Naeem and Mariam Haris Nini of Milton, Ont., Each received a free NAAT test at a Walgreens in the Buffalo area in May, just before returning to Canada. (Posted by Haris Naeem Nini)

Walgreens states that customers can only be tested in a car via a drive-thru. Nini said the couple did not have a vehicle, so they went through drive-thru in an Uber.

“The experience was a breeze and of course cost us nothing – except the Uber ride.”

In September, Delores Davidson also received a free test, but she went to a CVS pharmacy drive-thru in Rancho Mirage, California, and got a PCR test. She said she had to pre-book her time online and it took about 24 hours to get the results.

“It was quick and easy,” said Davidson, who lives in Calgary. “We never paid. We were never charged.”

CVS also did not respond to requests for comment.

Free test alerts

D’Amours warns that the NAAT / ID NOW tests are not available at all Walgreen locations, so Canadians should check online before making U.S. travel plans. Travelers may also need to book their free trial several days in advance to secure an appointment, he said.

D’Amours also advises travelers to stay informed during their travels – in case the US suddenly changes its free trial policy. “You never know, with the United States [land] reopening the border, will they get too many Canadians and decide to scrap it? “

Another traveler also has a warning.

Petar Sesar from London, Ont., Said he and his fiancée, Mara Bakula, tried to get a free PCR test at a CVS in Cleveland in August, but were told it would take at least four days to get their results.

“I said, ‘How long will it take because we plan to travel to Canada tomorrow,'” Sesar said. “They laughed a little at us when we suggested we would use the test results to travel.”

The couple ended up paying $ 200 each at a clinic to get PCR tests with guaranteed fast results.

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