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Controversial plan approved for COVID-19 testing at Palm Beach International Airport

If patient tests positive, they would have to notify airline prior to flight
Airplane taking off seen through window at Palm Beach International Airport
Posted at 2:11 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 14:47:31-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In just days, passengers will be able to get screened for COVID-19 at Palm Beach International Airport.

But the plan approved by county commissioners on Tuesday afternoon comes with a great deal of controversy.

Officials said Helix Virtual Inc. will operate a testing room in a pre-security area on the second level near Concourse C.

The company will offer both rapid and PCR tests to departing and arriving passengers within 72 hours of their flight, airport and airline employees, and employees of service providers. The site will not be open to the general public.

The goal is for the testing room to be open as early as Monday, Feb. 15.

According to Helix Virtual officials, the results of the rapid tests will generally be ready in less than 30 minutes, and the results of the PCR tests are expected in around 24 hours.

However, several county commissioners on Tuesday raised red flags with the plan.

If a patient tests positive for COVID-19, the testing center would be required to notify the Florida Department of Health. But it would be the infected individual's obligation to disclose their positive test result to the airline prior to boarding.

"Ultimately, we're relying upon a passenger to do the right thing, and we know that's not gonna happen," said Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth. "Let's not assume that everybody's gonna do the right thing."

Weinroth reminded the public of a JetBlue passenger who flew to PBIA in March of last year, despite knowing he was infected with COVID-19. The carrier later banned that man from all future flights on JetBlue.

"We know that they've tested positive, and we're keeping that information to ourselves," Weinroth said. "There's something wrong with that."

"We will not know the test results. We cannot know the test results because of federal laws that prohibit us from having health care information," responded Laura Beebe, the airport director at Palm Beach International Airport.

Commissioner Maria Sachs echoed Weinroth's concerns, saying the plan places a great deal of trust in passengers to tell the truth.

"Just rings a bell about liability in terms of people getting off a flight and then finding out, well, the person I sat next to tested positive for COVID," Sachs said. "The Department of Health knew about it and nobody told me."

"The passengers are required to disclose that information prior to flight," Beebe said. "They can and have been banned from flights when it's determined that they have provided false information."

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay supported the plan, saying it's no different from someone getting a positive test result at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, then boarding a flight at PBIA later in the day.

"There are gonna be people out there that are gonna behave selfishly no matter where they get tested," McKinlay said.

The commissioner added that the COVID-19 testing room at PBIA will be a good thing for the tourism industry, which she claims is "getting slaughtered" right now.

"This provides some sort of layer of feeling safe," McKinlay said.

A representative for Helix Virtual Inc. said the agreement includes an indemnification clause that would require Helix to compensate Palm Beach County if any lawsuits are filed against the county.

Ultimately, commissioners voted 4-3 to move forward with the plan.

Officials said the site will operate Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you're self-paying without insurance, the maximum cost for each test will be $125.

"This is a service that more airports throughout the United States are providing," Beebe said. "It's purely voluntary. It's purely being provided as a passenger convenience. Nobody would be mandated to actually take any sort of testing."