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Here’s how Alaska is testing for coronavirus

Test kit used to analyze patient samples for the coronavirus at the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory in Anchorage on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Alaska public health officials announced last week the state has the ability to test for the new coronavirus. Now, as COVID-19 continues its spread, health workers are beginning to ramp up testing in Alaska.

Speaking to reporters Monday, the state’s chief medical officer, Anne Zink, said that the chance of a coronavirus case in Alaska soon is “highly likely.”

After two previous samples came back negative on Sunday and early Monday, an Anchorage laboratory was testing two new samples for the COVID-19 coronavirus Tuesday afternoon.

Here’s how that process works:

If a doctor thinks a patient in Alaska is showing symptoms of the virus — shortness of breath, cough and fever — the doctor would contact the Alaska Section of Epidemiology with the state’s health department, according to Bernd Jilly, laboratory director at the Alaska State Public Health Laboratories.

From there, state epidemiologists will determine whether or not those symptoms meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of the illness, said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist at the state’s health department.

There are two categories for making that determination, Castrodale said. The person would have to show symptoms of the virus. And they also would need to have come into contact with someone who had the illness, or have traveled to certain areas listed by the CDC, Castrodale said.

If someone showed severe symptoms and health care providers were able to rule out other illnesses, they wouldn’t necessarily have to identify a source for the exposure to test for COVID-19, according to CDC guidelines.

Patient samples arrive to the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory in Anchorage in transport vials like this to be tested for the coronavirus. Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Public health officials in the state have continually urged Alaskans to wash their hands and stay home if they feel sick.

If the symptoms and exposure history do meet that threshold, epidemiologists would have a sample of that person’s bodily fluids sent to the state public health laboratories in either Anchorage or Fairbanks, depending on which is closer, according to Jilly.

The samples come from three different areas of the body. It could be a mouth swab, similar to a strep test. It could be a nose swab that reaches through the nose and down to the back of the throat. It could also be a lung fluid sample if someone can cough up deep phlegm, Jilly said.

If a sample is collected by health care workers outside of Anchorage or Fairbanks, it will need to be shipped to one of the state’s labs, Jilly said.

The labs can also work with courier services to get samples delivered, Jilly said.

At the state’s public health labs, microbiologists then perform a multi-step test to determine whether the sample is positive for coronavirus.

Lab workers are using the CDC’s kits to test for the illness. Samples show up from hospitals to the lab in vials of liquid that preserves them for testing.

Public Health Microbiologist John Laurance said this thermal cycler, center, was used to analyze patient samples for the coronavirus in the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory in Anchorage over the weekend. Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)
One of two patient samples that tested negative for the coronavirus over the weekend at the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory in Anchorage. Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

On Tuesday, at the state’s laboratory, John Laurance, a public health microbiologist with the Alaska State Public Health Laboratory, wore orange gloves and a blue lab coat. He pulled up a graph on a computer screen displaying a negative sample of the coronavirus. The screen was hooked up to the machine that analyzes the samples.

Different lines indicated different things. There was a straight green line that extended across the screen. Laurance said if certain other lines cross that threshold, then it means the sample came back positive for coronavirus.

Right now, both the state’s labs in Fairbanks and Anchorage have one kit each. The CDC shipped out two more on Monday, Jilly said.

He said it’s likely that each test kit could work for about 50 people.

If a test did come back positive, Jilly said they’d notify the hospital, the state health department and also the CDC. Jilly said the lab would also send specimens to the CDC for more testing.

So far, only Laurance and Michael Stevenson, a public health laboratory scientist at the Alaska Public Health Laboratory, are certified in Anchorage to do the testing. But Jilly said he wanted to expand the number of staff who could carry it out.

“It’s not a simple test procedure,” Jilly said. “So it requires a bit of expertise and a bit of practice to get everything right. And so we’re cross training more and more staff.”

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