CHICAGO — Rapid COVID-19 tests soon might be available to passengers and employees at O’Hare International Airport, from a company that plans to offer the tests at other major airports starting Wednesday.
XpresCheck plans to begin offering COVID-19 tests developed by Abbott Laboratories at JFK and Newark Liberty international airports Wednesday. The Abbott ID NOW tests deliver results in 13 minutes or less.
XpresCheck, a subsidiary of XpresSpa Group, is in talks with the City of Chicago to potentially offer the tests at O’Hare as well.
“The goal is to create a safer travel environment, work environment and reduce risks, but also restore passenger confidence as the airlines are returning, and airports are trying to return back to normal,” said Doug Satzman, XpresSpa and XpresCheck CEO.
“Like 9/11 changed safety protocol forever in our airports, we think COVID-19 will as well,” he said.
XpresCheck hopes to offer the tests at O’Hare by the holiday travel season, Satzman said. The tests would be voluntary for travelers, airport and airline employees. The company is focusing on testing people who have symptoms or known exposures to COVID-19, but anyone can be tested, he said.
The company’s announcement comes as questions have surfaced about the efficacy of testing as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. President Donald Trump and a number of others who attended an event at the White House became ill with COVID-19 after the gathering. Multiple media outlets reported that attendees were given an Abbott test before the event. Some of the attendees were not wearing masks or social distancing.
Health experts and others caution that tests are just one tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19. People who receive negative test results should continue to protect themselves and others, such as by wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts also caution that testing has its limitations.
North suburban-based Abbott says its ID NOW test correctly detects positive results 95% of the time and correctly detects negative ones 98% of the time within seven days of experiencing symptoms. Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned the test could produce false negatives, though Abbott has criticized a study supporting that as “rife with limitations.”
Also, If a person is tested too early in the course of the illness, tests won’t be able to detect COVID-19. That means someone who catches COVID-19 on an airplane probably won’t test positive for the illness if he or she takes a test right after landing.
“It’s helpful to keep in mind that tests discover the presence of coronavirus once there’s enough viral material in a person to be able to detect it,” Abbott spokeswoman Darcy Ross said in an email. “No test detects the virus immediately after the person becomes infected.”
Questions also have been raised about the value of testing at airports.
Though tests can provide valuable information for some travelers, others might not be able to act upon the results, said Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. For example, a person who tests positive while traveling might not have the financial means to quarantine him or herself in a strange city for 14 days, she said.
“I guess what I struggle with is what is the individual supposed to do with this information and who’s going to support them to not travel and quarantine?” Carnethon said.
Chicago-based United Airlines recently announced that it would begin offering rapid COVID-19 testing to customers traveling from San Francisco to Hawaii, which has a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling to the islands. Starting Oct. 15, Hawaii plans to allow travelers who test negative for COVID-19 within three days of leaving for Hawaii to skip the quarantine.
American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines also offer testing options for some passengers traveling to Hawaii. In addition, American Airlines recently announced that it would begin offering pre-flight testing to Jamaicans traveling from Miami to Jamaica so travelers can potentially avoid a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
XpresCheck’s testing locations in JFK and Newark include doctors and nurse practitioners who consult with customers. Those locations already offer antibody tests and a different type of COVID-19 test, in which results aren’t delivered for several days.
XpresCheck has so far been sharing information about positive tests at Newark and JFK airports with the CDC and state health departments, Satzman said. The company has not been sharing information about positive tests with airlines because passengers who get the tests do not share their flight information with XpresCheck, he said.
XpresCheck is charging $200 for the Abbott test, and it’s unclear whether insurance companies will cover that cost.
Satzman said the company has the ability to offer its tests to about 500 people a day at JFK and about 350 to 400 people a day at Newark.
Before COVID-19, XpresSpa Group operated spas in airports across the country, including O’Hare. But its spas are closed amid the pandemic. When COVID-19 started, the company pivoted to begin offering testing in airports.
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