Updated February 2022.
On October 12th, Panama will allow anyone to come in to Panama who presents a negative Covid test that is not more than 72 hours old. But which Covid test should you get so it will be acceptable? Marne Coggan wrote a great article about his experience with getting a Covid test, the right test, to be allowed to come in to Panama last week.
After October 12, no quarantine is required when you come in to Panama. You will only need to present the negative Covid test.
Our Experience: COVID Testing for Travel to Panama
by Marne Coggan
I’m writing this from the kitchen of our home in Volcancito, a Boquete neighborhood about 1,000’ feet above town center. My wife Debbie and I just flew in from California, which means we’ve traveled into Panama with negative COVID-19 tests. I want to share what we’ve learned so you can too.
In April 2019, my wife and I took a Panama Relocation Tour with Jackie Lange. On that same trip, we worked with a Panamanian attorney recommended by Jackie to obtain our temporary residency visas and get multi-entry stamps on our passports. Our Permanent Visas were ready in June, and in August we returned to Panama to get our Cedulas. We eventually found a house we liked in Volcancito, very close to Jackie’s wonderful home. We plan to move there permanently in early 2021.
We had left our Volcancito home on March 9, 2020 for what was planned to be four weeks in our soon-to-be-ex-home in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. We had booked an April return flight to Panama. But March 9 was just a few days before Panama announced a COVID-19 lockdown with a 30-day suspension of travel into or out of the country. Each following month, April through August, that 30-day suspension was continually renewed. So each month, April through August, we’d have to cancel our flights at the last minute, then re-book for the following month.
Finally, in late August, the rules changed. On August 13th, the Panamanian Health Ministry (MINSA) issued Resolution #766, allowing travel into Panama. But there were three key restrictions on this travel. First, this travel was allowed only for returning Panamanian citizens and legal residents, meaning holders of permanent visas. (That was us!) Second, returnees were required to quarantine for 14 days in their homes. (We were fine with this — we were going to stay in our Volcancito home anyway.).
And third, on arrival in Panama, returnees were required to present documentation of a negative test for the COVID-19 virus taken within 48 hours of travel. 48 hours? YIKES! (Later, MINSA Resolution #853 from September 3 extended that time limit to 96 hours. But our essential problem remained.)
We knew that testing for the SARS-COV-2 virus was widely available in the Bay Area. While once it was offered only to first responders, medical personnel and people showing symptoms of COVID-19, now anyone could get tested. Mostly, the tests involved sample collection with nasal swabs and lab amplification with PCR. The tests looked for the presence of virus particles in the body, indicating a current infection, whether symptomatic or not. Most of this PCR testing required an appointment, but some tests were offered to walk-ins.
The problem was that the results for these PCR tests weren’t available for some time, usually 5-7 days, and often longer. We did hear of a few tests with results advertised as optimally available in 1-2 days. But there were no guarantees, and the actual results times usually were longer.
We needed to have test results in our hands, in Panama, in 48 hours. It seemed like it couldn’t be done in our area. It was a deal breaker.
Now, we knew that rapid-result COVID tests were available. But these were antiBODY tests, blood tests that looked for the presence of antiBODIES to the virus, indicating a past infection. And antiBODY blood tests were not accepted by MINSA for return travel to Panama. We’ve heard of folks showing up at the airport with a negative antiBODY test being denied boarding by Copa personnel. (As they should.)
So why am I annoyingly capitalizing BODY in antiBODY? Because it helps to differentiate it from antiGEN tests. As a college Anatomy instructor, my immunology lesson included a serious portion of class time devoted to explaining the differences between closely named antiBODIES and antiGENS. Briefly, antBODIES are molecules produced by the body’s immune system in response to a pathogen (a bacteria or virus). But antiGENS are parts of the pathogens themselves. If you find an antiGEN in a test, you’ve found an actual, present virus or bacteria.
And there are rapid-response antiGEN tests for COVID-19. Like the PCR test, the sample comes from a nasal swab. Like the PCR test, a positive result indicates a current infection. The difference between an antiGEN test and a PCR test is accuracy. The PCR test amplifies (makes more of) the pathogen’s genetic material, so the test is very very sensitive, and also very specific. The antiGEN test does not amplify anything, and it looks for parts of the virus which may be similar to other coronaviruses (like SARS and MERS). So the antiGEN test is less exquisitely sensitive and somewhat less specific — it is more likely to produce some false positive and false negative results.
But without the amplification step, an antiGEN test is really fast. Like 20 minutes fast. And since it gives pretty accurate (but not perfect) results, it’s a good screening test to find people with COVID-19. And Panama accepts antiGEN tests for entry into the country. Yippee! Let’s get an antiGEN test a day or two before our flight!
A super idea. But there’s a trick to this. Not a lot of labs offer antiGEN tests. You’ll have to look hard to find one. And since most people don’t know that antiBODY (not good for Panama) and antiGEN (good for Panama) tests are different things, you might ask folks about antiGEN tests, and they might direct you to a lab with antiBODY tests.
Worse (and this is almost evil), when doing Google searches for ‘COVID antiGEN tests near me’, Google also includes results for antiBODY tests. Google tells you this near the top of your results list, and — in tiny type — let’s you click a link to search only for antiGEN tests. But still, labs offering antiBODY tests will appear in your search results, because the labs have paid Google to include their listing when ‘antiGEN’ is searched.
So you’ll have to cull the search results carefully to find labs offering antiGEN tests. And once you find a lab advertising antiGEN tests, you’ll have to call and talk to a live person to see if the lab actually is offering those tests now, or sometime in the future.
In the Bay Area (population ~7.75 million and very high-tech ), we found only three labs with websites advertising COVID antiGEN tests. One of those three labs didn’t exist. The second lab hoped to have the antiGEN tests going soon; they would email me when they were ready. Only the third lab was actively running COVID antiGEN tests and was taking appointments. The tests were not cheap — they cost $135 per person. But we could schedule a test for the day before our flight and have our results in print in about 20 minutes.
And so we did. Other than having to fork over $270 for the two of us, it was a easy-peazy! The lab staff were great, patient management was very well organized, the sample collection was quick and simple (granted, the nasal swab wasn’t especially comfortable), and the results were handed to us in about 15 minutes. Happily, the results form had a sticker, an inked stamp saying “Security Seal”, and a large signature —enough to satisfy a bureaucratic official looking for signs of confirmed legal authenticity.
Before heading to the airport, we did something else important. We knew that many people don’t know there’s a difference between antiBODY and antiGEN tests. And we heard reports that Copa denied boarding to travelers with antiBODY tests. So we thought it was possible that a Copa agent might see “anti” on our antiGEN test results and reject them immediately. To protect against this, we brought copies of the official MINSA Resolutions #766 and #853 with the words antiGEN highlighted. We also printed Copa’s web page showing Panama travel requirements as accepting antiGEN tests. And I made multiple copies of our test results documents because I didn’t want to hand the originals to anyone except to an entry-deciding health official at the airport in Panama.
On our travel day, we went to the airport armed with all of this documentation. Our itinerary was SFO to LAX on United Airlines, connecting to a Copa flight LAX to Panama City. Checking in, the United agent saw in her computer that we needed documentation of a negative Covid test. I gave her copies of our test results, and showed her the printout of Copa’s requirements allowing antiGEN tests. She accepted this, checking our luggage through to PTY and giving us boarding passes for both flights. We flew to LAX without incident, arriving about five hours before our Copa flight.
The Copa gate agent arrived about 90 minutes before departure time. We gave her our United-issued boarding passes, copies of our antiGEN test results doc, and the printed copy of the Copa webpage showing acceptance of antiGEN tests. The Copa agent couldn’t herself rule on the validity of our documentation herself; she needed to get validation from Higher Authority that our covid antigen tests met his idea of Official Criteria.
So we waited. Anxiously. My worry was that the said Higher Authority would be a disinterested, disembodied voice on the phone, and that I wouldn’t be given the chance to show the docs proving that our negative COVID test results met Panama’s actual criteria. And time clicked by… After about 15 minutes of angst, the issue was resolved happily in our favor and without a touch of argument by an actually-present Copa supervisor. We were given back our boarding passes, now annotated with ‘Docs OK’. A few minutes later, we boarded the plane.
This was a big positive step. Really big.
But we still had to be allowed into the country by Panamanian officials at the airport. (We’ve heard stories of folks not being allowed in due to problems with their negative COVID test reports. Just before landing at Panama City, a flight attendant gave each of us a two-page form, all in Spanish, which explained the COVID entry requirements and the necessary 14-day quarantine. The form had blanks for our name; our address and phone number in Panama; our Cedula number; the names of others in our family; and the name and phone number of a Panamanian emergency contact. We each filled out and signed our forms and kept them handy.
On disembarking in Tocumen Airport, we were told that before going to Immigration and Baggage Claim, we first had to visit the Health Screening area. We were directed down the concourse a bit to Gate 103. We found there a busting hive of activity with many uniformed health officials carrying clipboards, stacks of papers, and no-touch forehead thermometers. On entering, we each were given yet another form, this one short, just over half a page. It asked for our travel-origin city and country; our air carrier and flight number; and our acknowledged understanding of and agreement to the quarantine rules. Forms in-hand, we were sent to one of the many health officials salted among the gate area seats. We handed over our 2-page and half-page completed forms to
the official, who carefully reviewed them. She scanned our temperatures and recorded them on our forms. Then, for each of us, she entered our name on a 3”x4” buff-colored card, and signed it. These were our approved health screening documents for entry into Panama.
At immigration, the agent scanned this buff form along with our passports and cedulas. That plus the usual fingerprint scans and Panama address/phone info got us into the country. We collected our luggage, gave the Customs official our completed customs form, ran our luggage through the scanner, and romped out into the arrivals area to meet our driver.
We were in-country at last!
And did you notice that it was only the airport staff who wanted to see our negative COVID test documents? The health official in the screening area didn’t expect or ask to see them. I offered them, but was waved off. I was surprised.
So net-net, if you want to fly to Panama while 96-hour negative COVID tests are required, I suggest you include antiGEN tests in your planning.
Useful Travel-to- Panama COVID-Testing Links:
In San Francisco, Marne went to this lab to get a rapid Covid test.
ARC Point Labs in Richmond. (510) 686-4278 3065 Richmond Parkway, Suite 103, Richmond CA 94807. The test was “8020 Viral Testing SARS-CoV-2 Nasal Swab Antigen Test with Rapid Result with Nasal Swab”