The state of Alaska’s hybrid rules for out-of-state air travelers are confusing. There’s the required COVID-19 test, then the subsequent quarantine requirements and the follow-up test after seven days.
But the requirements are changing, both for Alaskans traveling Outside and for visitors headed north.
Last week, I visited with a frequent traveler about his most recent trip to the Lower 48. He was confused and frustrated. “I tried hard to get a COVID-19 test before returning to Alaska,” he said. “Unless I was showing symptoms, it wasn’t possible.”
Further, he printed out the required traveler declaration form only to learn that in Anchorage, the form must be filled out online.
Finally, while getting a test at the airport, he was told about a requirement to come back to the airport for another test in a week. “I’m not coming back here,” he told the screener as he picked up his bags and left.
Tessa Walker Linderman is a nurse consultant with Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services. She is in charge of the state’s COVID-19 response team at all ports of entry: airports, the Canadian border and sea ports.
“If you’re in Alaska and you’re leaving the state, don’t get tested before you leave,” Walker Linderman said. “After all, it’s the travel to the Lower 48 that represents your biggest exposure.”
Instead, Walker Linderman advises returning Alaskans to get one of the available at-home COVID-19 tests. There are four at-home tests whose results the state will accept on arrival. Of the four available at-home tests, one, the Pixel test by LabCorp, is available at no additional cost. The other companies charge between $109 and $150 per test.
The state’s protocol for travelers who have been tested in the 72 hours leading up to their travel to Alaska is to minimize interaction with other people until they receive results from a second test taken seven to 14 days after arrival. Travelers can get a voucher for a free test at the airport. Anchorage’s guidance more specifically outlines what minimizing interactions looks like: no dine-in restaurants, theaters, gyms or bowling alleys. Then, after your second test results come back negative, you’re off the hook.
For travelers who get tested at the airport, the rule is to self-quarantine at home until you get your test results. Walter Linderman said airport test results now are available within 72 hours. But that can change, depending on the backlog of tests as more people start to travel.
All inbound travelers from out of state still must complete a traveler declaration form. If you’re coming to Anchorage, you have to fill out the form online and submit it via email. If you’re traveling to Fairbanks, Juneau or any other Alaska airport, you have to print the form and fill it out. For those travelers without online access, there are screeners with laptops who can assist with the online form.
One other change for on-site airport testing: Travelers self-test in front of a screener. That means they hand you the swab and you put it up your nose by yourself.
At Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, there are two screening stations. One is on the “C” concourse for Alaska Airlines. The other is on the “B” concourse for Delta, United, Sun Country and American Airlines.
Last Tuesday, United Flight 2451 arrived from Denver on time at 2:56 p.m. As passengers filed off the plane, screeners approached each passenger, asking about their travel declaration form. Those who needed to fill one out were directed to an area to complete the form. Then, they were directed to a screening station to find out whether they’d been tested.
After passing that station, travelers spent just a couple of minutes with one of about 12 screeners, dressed in full gowns with masks and gloves and separated by a Plexiglas shield from the passengers.
Airport testing was next, down near baggage claim, where travelers self-administer their tests.
Travelers have asked me, “Who is going to make sure people quarantine?” or “Who will make sure travelers get their follow-up test?” (Speaking of quarantining, there are some travelers who don’t want to be tested. That’s fine, as long as they agree to self-quarantine for 14 days.)
Don’t expect the “COVID police” to show up at your door and check your test results. There’s no budget for that.
“There’s a lot that depends on the honor system,” said Eland Conway, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport communications manager.
That’s the truth. Whether it’s wearing a mask, washing your hands, staying 6 feet away from people or getting a follow-up test, the burden to slow the spread of COVID-19 falls more to individuals than it does to law enforcement officers or elected officials.
I’m still inspired by Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. She says she wears her mask in public for three reasons: “Humility, because I don’t know if I have COVID as it is clear that people can spread the disease before they have symptoms. Kindness, because I don’t know if the person I’m near has a kid battling cancer, or cares for an elder. And for community. I want my community to thrive, businesses to stay open and employees to stay healthy.”
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