When Ian Hutcheon inquired about getting a COVID-19 test last month at a Walgreens pharmacy in Gold Canyon, Ariz., 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,'” said Hutcheon. “I was a little incredulous, but he insisted.”
Travellers entering Canada must provide proof of a negative molecular COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of their entry. And those molecular tests — such as the popular PCR test — can cost hundreds of dollars.
As a result, Canada’s testing requirement has sparked protests from politicians and tourism groups on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, who complain the tests can be cost-prohibitive.
But CBC News interviewed six Canadians who recently travelled to the U.S., and got a free molecular test at a pharmacy or a clinic before their return to Canada.
“It’s mind-blowing to think that people are paying $200 for those tests,” said Andrew D’Amours, who is the co-founder of the travel information website, Flytrippers.
D’Amours, of Trois-Rivières, Que., has taken three free tests in the U.S. and written about the topic for his site.
“It’s so easy to get it for free,” he said.
However, there are caveats: Travellers may not be guaranteed to get their test results in time, and may not find free tests at their U.S. destination.
But the stars aligned for 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 an accepted test by the Canadian government.
The couple had booked their tests online one day in advance, listing their hotel when asked to provide an address. Hutcheon said they faced no issues when they drove their rental car to Walgreens the following day to take the test at the pharmacy’s drive-thru testing site.
“They took the swab and about two hours later, the results appeared in my email inbox,” he said. “We printed them and took them with us to the airport and it was all smooth sailing.”
Why are the tests free?
The tests that Hutcheon and other Canadian travellers have received aren’t actually free, but instead funded by the U.S. government. It has put measures in place to make low or no-cost COVID-19 tests available to everyone in the U.S., including those who don’t have U.S. medical insurance.
“They want people to get 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. (Individuals who book a same-day test for one person, however, must pay a booking fee.)
BeeperMD services customers in New York City and most regions in Florida. The company has already provided free tests to thousands of Canadian travellers, including snowbirds, Gelbart said.
BeeperMD typically provides test results within 36 hours and will do everything it can to ensure travellers get their results within Canada’s required 72-hour window, he said. But he cautions there are no guarantees for non-paying customers.
As a precaution, Gelbart advises travellers to book their free tests a couple of days in advance.
“If people are prepared, they’ll be fine,” he said. “We try to be as accommodating as possible.”
Quick NAAT tests
Four of the Canadians interviewed used a Walgreens drive-thru site to take a free, self-administered NAAT test, which the pharmacy chain calls an ID NOW test. Each traveller 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, N.J., and the second time on Sunday in Baton Rouge, La. He said the NAAT tests are the best option for Canadians, because they provide quick results.
“I would say it’s a game changer.”
Walgreens did not respond to requests for comment. However, the pharmacy chain’s website states that it offers no-cost COVID-19 testing at select locations.
It also says that PCR test results are typically provided within 48 hours, but without a guarantee. However, its NAAT test is performed on-site, and results are available within 24 hours.
Walgreens also states that customers need to provide a valid state ID or driver’s licence and insurance card.
None of the people interviewed by CBC said they were denied for having a Canadian driver’s licence and no U.S.-based medical insurance.
“We just [showed] our Canadian driver’s licence IDs and that worked perfectly fine,” said Haris Naeem Nini, of Milton, Ont. He and his wife, Mariam Haris, each got free NAAT tests at a Walgreens drive-thru in the Buffalo area in May.
Walgreens states that customers can only get tested by car via a drive-thru. Nini said the couple didn’t have a vehicle, so they went through the drive-thru in an Uber.
“The experience was a breeze and obviously didn’t cost us anything — except for the Uber ride.”
In September, Delores Davidson also received a free test, but she went to a CVS pharmacy drive-thru in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and got a PCR test. She said she had to pre-book her appointment 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 warnings
D’Amours warns that the NAAT/ID NOW tests aren’t available at all Walgreen locations, so Canadians should check online before making U.S. travel plans. Travellers may also need to book their free test several days in advance to secure an appointment, he said.
D’Amours further advises travellers to stay informed during their travels — in case the U.S. suddenly changes its no-cost test policy. “You never know, with the U.S. [land] border reopening, will they get too many Canadians and decide to scrap it?”
Another traveller also has a warning.
Petar Sesar, of 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 on leaving for Canada tomorrow,'” said Sesar. “They kind of laughed at us when we suggested that we would be using the test results to travel.”
The couple wound up paying $200 US each at a clinic to get PCR tests with guaranteed quick results.