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Tampa airport extends on-site coronavirus testing program

More than 3,000 people have been tested through the pilot program, which was to end this weekend.

If you’re traveling this holiday season, you can still get a COVID-19 test at Tampa International Airport.

The airport announced Wednesday that it was extending voluntary on-site testing for travelers in its main terminal. The pilot program had been slated to end Oct. 31. After a pause Nov. 1, it will pick up Nov. 2 for the rest of the year, minus Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“We originally thought we’d see about 50 to 80 passengers (per day) who would want to be tested,” airport CEO Joe Lopano said. “And we quickly realized that people are very receptive to this. They were lining up even before we opened in the morning. We’re now doing 130 to 140 passengers per day, and so we felt like the customers were very happy with the experience.”

Related: Tampa airport introduces coronavirus screening for all passengers

The first-of-its-kind program, a partnership with BayCare Health System, has seen more than 3,000 tests completed during the month, with a positivity rate of about 2 percent. Passengers who tested positive, he said, were contacted by BayCare “to advise them not to continue their trip.”

The program offers both rapid antigen tests, which yield results in 15 minutes, and generally more accurate polymerase chain reaction tests, which take 48 hours. The antigen tests had cost $57, and the polymerase chain reaction swabs had cost $125 — but due to the popularity of the program, the airport is increasing those costs to $60 and $150, respectively, to defray additional staffing costs.

Starting Nov. 2, travelers will be able to walk in for the new tests near Airside F in the main terminal from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday. It is open to arriving or departing passengers who can show proof of travel.

The past month did not pass without coronavirus hiccups at the airport. Days after a press conference announcing the program, Lopano and airport spokeswoman Veronica Cintron announced they’d tested positive for COVID-19. Both had been swabbed at the airport.

Related: Tampa International officials Joe Lopano, Veronica Cintron test positive for COVID-19

“Having access to testing as an individual, not even an employee at the airport, I’ll tell you, it’s a game changer,” Cintron said. “I was able to so very quickly know my situation, knowing that the headache I had wasn’t just any old exhaustion headache, but it was COVID, and I was able to take the measures I took to make sure that this wouldn’t spread. So having this mechanism at the airport was honestly a godsend.”

The airport hopes the expanded program will continue to instill confidence in travelers anticipating a shaky holiday travel season. Only about a quarter of Floridians say they plan to travel for the holidays, according to AAA the Auto Club Group, with 84 percent citing the coronavirus pandemic as a chief concern.

Related: Get ready, Tampa Bay: Holiday air travel could be a bumpy ride

Still, the airport has continued ramping operations back up after a devastating spring and summer. The airport plans to add 40 new and returning routes in November, including new routes to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York and Cancun.

Lopano said passenger traffic this month has been at about 50 percent of normal — although they have seen double-digit percentage increases each week in October, putting the airport about 16 percent ahead of its recovery forecast.

“The objective here is to create the confidence on the part of the travelers to try to get air travel back," he said, “so the ultimate beneficiary will be the airlines, assuming the customers are comfortable with air travel. And we we think the testing helps.”

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