COVID Testing in Costa Rica: Could the Caja Help in Rural Areas?

Jan 14, 2021

Costa Rican travel pro Marco Soto offers some ideas on how Costa Rica’s heath service could collaborate with tourism to provide COVID-19 tests for tourists in rural areas.

The news this week about the United States requiring a negative COVID-19 test for nationals and foreigners to enter its territory alarmed us.

It was the worst possible news we could hear outside of them closing the airport and borders again. The new requirement will certainly impact Costa Rica‘s recovery, which, although has been slow, was starting to make progress.

The news hit us hard and many of us in the tourism sector have lost sleep this week, thinking about we can do. Whirring night neurons in my head have kept me thinking and thinking instead of sleeping.

There’s already information going around about some actions the ICT is talking about.

We hear they’re talking to Promed (the organization that promotes medical tourism in Costa Rica) and the private testing laboratories about getting the price of tests down and logistical matters.

There are a lot of challenges to face. Logistically, we’ll need to match our clients’ travel itineraries to test them in time for their flights without impacting the quality of their vacations. That won’t always be easy and may change how we schedule vacations. There’ll be transfer costs and mornings wasted going back and forth.

And then there’s the price of the tests themselves to add to the transfer costs. A couple may have to pay an extra $300 to $500 to get tested. Imagine what it’ll cost a family.

The tests themselves won’t be an issue. They’re easily available in Costa Rica. The issue is location and infrastructure because most testing labs are in San Jose. Testing in remote areas may not be feasible if costs skyrocket. Some remote areas will suffer if they’re not nearby a laboratory. Tourists won’t go to these areas and they will decline.

It’s unrealistic to think the labs will open in remote areas or invest in the infrastructure of getting tests to San Jose in a timely manner. In the short term, this just won’t happen.

These labs are businesses who make decisions based on profitability. They’re happy staying in place with clients coming to them, they won’t worry about getting to the client unless it’s for a lot of money.

I was tossing all this around in my head and a sassy neuron gave me a spark of inspiration in the middle of the night.

It turns out, I remembered, that Costa Rica has a perfect testing infrastructure in every corner of the country. Even the most remote areas you can think of, far far away from private labs and health facilities.

I’m talking about our Ebais clinics. Ebais stands for Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud (Basic Teams for Comprehensive Health Care). Every community or village or canton has an Ebais clinic to look after the health needs of local people. Ebais clinics are the first line of medical care here, the bastion of healthcare in Costa Rica.

So here’s the idea.

The CCSS and the government should involve themselves in testing tourists. I’ll explain why.

This new requirement for travelers is a huge threat to tourism employment in Costa Rica. Not only tourism employment, but also many indirect jobs that rely on tourism.

Tourists will see this as the biggest obstacle to travel (it’s a matter of time before we see cancellations and drops in leads). This will impact travel companies, which translates into job losses. Job losses mean a drastic drop in worker-employer fees, which are source of income for the CCSS. So it’s in the interest of the CCSS to save tourism.

They could charge for the tests at a reasonable price that allows them to cover their costs.

Doing this would also force the private labs lower their costs. In turn, this would help minimize the blow to the tourists’ wallet, something that weighs in the decision to travel in the first place.

I’m not suggesting we give free tests to tourists here (although throughout this crisis, we’ve tested and treated thousands of foreigners for free, and several Caribbean countries give free or heavily discounted insurance to tourists). But if we did, or if we offered super cheap tests, it would not hurt us.

We could even install drive-through testing centers like some laboratories here already have. Can you imagine the word-of-mouth of travelers praising the efficient, low-cost, or free service they received here?

The CCSS already has all the logistics to do the tests in the required times. They have the experience to create effective procedures, and the capacity and reputation to carry out testing in such a way that the United States, Canada, and other countries will accept them.

The Health Ministry should be interested in promoting this because it would help trace the virus. This is key to combatting the pandemic.

The central government should also be interested, not only to save jobs, but also because it’s good press, it’s good for Costa Rica’s reputation.

The ICT could activate the conversation, perhaps accompanied by Canatur, the Chamber of Hotels (CCH) and organizations.

The ultimate goal is to minimize the negative impact this will have on employment. Surely everyone can agree on that.

This is an issue we must discuss with transparency, understanding the seriousness of the matter. I believe though, that we can and must make extensive and creative use of the resources that our public health system already has.

Of course, if we don’t move quickly, if we don’t all collaborate, the consequences we’ve already suffered will last much longer. And that will be a very different conversation.

This article was originally posted in Spanish on the Facebook group, Empresarios y Trabajadores de Turismo en Costa Rica. It was rewritten in English for this website with the permission of the author.

Marco Soto is the general manager of Memorable Costa Rica, a San Jose-based travel agency and destination management company.