Negative COVID-19 test ‘not a passport’ to travel, officials warn, as demand surges

A flight crew wearing personal protective equipment walks through Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

California residents who think a negative coronavirus test gives them the green light to travel this holiday season should think again, officials say.

Public health officials across the state are warning that using testing to justify hitting the road or gathering in other ways doesn’t work.

As California struggles amid an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases, and Thanksgiving and other holidays are right around the corner, demand for testing in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties has skyrocketed. The same situation is playing out nationwide, straining testing sites that are running short of key supplies.


“We have seen the repeated failure of this type of testing strategy across the country, including in Washington, D.C.,” Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of health, said at a briefing this week. “A negative test cannot be an excuse to put yourself or others at risk.”

A person who tests negative can still carry the virus if it’s early in their infection, health officials say.

Testing “is an identifier at that moment,” Los Angeles County public health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said Thursday, noting that it isn’t a preventive measure nor a barometer for future illness.

Even before the statewide surge in cases, officials were strongly advising against nonessential travel. Anyone leaving the state or arriving from out of state should quarantine for 14 days, regardless of their test results, Davis said. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging Americans to stay home.

With COVID-19 cases surging and families hoping to gather safely for Thanksgiving, long lines for coronavirus tests have reappeared across the U.S.

Nov. 19, 2020

San Francisco officials have asked residents not to misuse testing facilities in an effort to travel, adding that the services are intended for essential workers, those who are symptomatic or who have been exposed to the virus.

“If people need tests for any other reason — like travel or visiting — they need to go to their private provider,” the city said in a statement. “City resources cannot support testing for behaviors, such as travel and visits with extended family, that are currently not recommended during this surge.”

San Francisco currently tests about 6,000 people a day, with results available in one to two days, officials said.


Los Angeles officials stopped short of advising residents to avoid testing, but health officials warn that test results are merely a snapshot in time and not intended as a free pass to willfully disobey health orders or recommendations.

“Your test result that you got Saturday morning was from Thursday when you got tested, and it said, ‘On Thursday, you were negative,’ ” said Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s director of public health. “It says nothing about whether you’re still negative on Saturday.

“That’s actually a false sense of security. It’s a false narrative.”

Though testing demand has shot up in recent weeks, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that capacity has not been reached at city sites. Officials anticipated the increased interest, expanding hours and adding supplies.

The city is testing an average of 27,000 people a day, with a capacity to test about 34,000 people daily, the mayor’s office said. Two weeks ago, the testing average was 14,000 a day. On Wednesday, 29,875 people were tested. Testing is available for all L.A. County residents.

“Despite the highest testing surge we have seen since the start of the pandemic, our sites are operating smoothly,” Garcetti said.

Still, “a negative test is not a passport to gather with others — for Thanksgiving or anything else,” he warned.


“I do want people to understand that testing on Thursday so you can party on Saturday: That doesn’t work. It’s not a good idea,” said Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s director of public health.

Nov. 16, 2020

“I do want people to understand that testing on Thursday so you can party on Saturday: That doesn’t work. It’s not a good idea,” Ferrer said. “It’s not effective, and you really are in some ways wasting a valuable resource.“

Earlier this week, Los Angeles International Airport rolled out testing sites at three terminals to offer to fliers, in part to help potentially avoid quarantining at their destination.

Some states, including Hawaii, require travelers to show a negative test to enter.

Although air travel has been increasing in recent months, the number of fliers nationwide is only 30% of last year’s total, LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery said.

There’s a possibility that in December, the number of travelers could climb to 50%, with some people still flying for the holidays, he said.