It’s less than 24 hours before I set sail on my next cruise, and I'm getting ready to swab my nose on camera for a faceless stranger using an at-home COVID-19 test kit, part of the Royal Caribbean's onboard COVID-19 protocol.
These are strange times, to be sure. As the industry returns, cruisers have been forced to keep up with the changing requirements surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and testing. Most cruise lines currently require passengers to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in order to set foot on a cruise ship—and frequently they require both.
The at-home test kits are essentially proctored antigen tests, with someone watching and documenting as you take the test. It's accepted by all cruise lines, and also valid for entry into the United States if you've been traveling overseas. The process is extremely simple, takes about 30 minutese and all you need besides the test and a form of ID is your phone or laptop and a good Wi-Fi connection.
I’ve become something of a COVID test aficionado in the past several months. It’s a dubious honor.
I’ve administered a late-night grocery store-purchased test in a hotel room, taken tests in a mobile laboratory set up in a mall parking lot, and zoomed through drive-thru testing. I’ve sat up the night before a cruise anxiously waiting for a friend’s test results to come through, I’ve figured out the difference between PCR and antigen tests. But today was the first time I’d taken a virtual proctored COVID-19 test.
I decided to try it out when researching options for my upcoming cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas. Royal Caribbean has partnered for pre-cruise antigen testing with Optum, which sells Abbott BinaxNOW™ test kits for $69.99 for two tests and $99.99 for a three-pack, including shipping. This bundle includes the kits as well as your virtual telehealth visit through a company called eMed.
Though it’s recommended that you purchase a two-test kit per person (in case of errors or contamination), my friend and I split the cost of the one kit, which was quite reasonable compared to some of the testing options I’d previously checked out before traveling (for example, the mobile lab experience set me back $100 out of pocket, although insurance may cover some tests for travel).
Our tests arrived four days after we ordered them.
We kept the kits sealed until our testing window, which currently is within 48 hours of the sail date for Royal Caribbean and most cruise lines. You don’t need to make an appointment or worry about testing on weekends, evenings, or holidays—you can hop online 24 hours a day every day to find a proctor for your test. This is a huge advantage over traditional testing facilities, many of which require advance appointments.
When it was time, I hopped on the eMed’s Navica website (they also offer a cell phone app) and logged in for testing. Ensuring my computer’s camera and microphone were working properly, a voice welcomed me and walked me through the testing process (I never saw anyone’s face during the test). The test kits have QR codes and these are scanned throughout the test process. You also need to provide identification, such as a driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, or school identification.
If you’ve ever taken an at-home COVID-19 test, this experience will be familiar to you: you prepare your test kit by placing a card on a flat surface and squeezing six drops of solution into one of the kit’s holes. Then swab each nostril, thread the swab through the card, and wait 15 minutes for results (two lines for positive; one line for negative).
The only difference from typical home testing is that someone is observing you throughout the process so that your results are "medically supervised" and thus can be officially certified for your cruise. Following your initial test, the proctor leaves while a 15-minute clock counts down the time until your test results can be read.
At that time, another proctor pops back in to scan your test results with you. Within moments, a PDF will be delivered to your email with your results on eMed letterhead, signed by a laboratory director, which you can provide at cruise check-in. The app will also generate a QR code that you can use.
This process was extremely easy for me—the only hiccups were making sure that my audio and video connection was clear (I had to switch from my cell phone to laptop), and that my camera was pointing at the kit throughout the process. I found it helpful to have someone who could assist me with angling the camera while I prepared and administered the test.
The entire process took approximately 45 minutes, from the initial log in to receiving the results via email. I would absolutely choose this option again to satisfy a travel requirement. Several airlines (for international travelers) and other cruise lines accept proctored home COVID test results, so this will likely be my go-to process from now on.
Now back to packing.