On October 12th, Panama will allow anyone to come in to Panama who presents a negative Covid test that is not more than 96 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.