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‘We want this to be easy’: Alaska health officials offer advice on how to comply with the state’s COVID-19 travel policy

A person walks past a sign explaining new a new state health mandate requiring COVID-19 testing for travelers entering Alaska on Friday, June 5, 2020 in the B Concourse at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Screening will begin at the airport at midnight. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Airports across Alaska last week were gearing up for a new state policy that went into effect Saturday. Passengers traveling by plane to Alaska will now be able to forgo a 14-day quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19.

The state is offering a choice on how to comply with the new policy. Heidi Hedberg, director of Alaska’s Division of Public Health, highly recommends that visitors take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of getting on a plane to come to Alaska and present the negative results upon arrival.

“We really want this to be easy," Hedberg said during a Friday media briefing at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. "Get tested before you travel. Have your negative test result. Complete the travel declaration. Flow through this airport.”

But she acknowledged that in practice, this option is tricky: In many states, you cannot get tested for the coronavirus unless you have symptoms. And then there’s the wait time for getting back test results, which can also vary by state.

So for those who are unable to get tested in that small window before their plane departs, Hedberg offered more details on a second option: Take a free test at the airport when you arrive in Alaska, and then self-quarantine at your own expense until notice of a negative test result is received.

Travelers who aren’t able to get tested within 72 hours of getting on the plane but can get a test within five days of their departure must also get a test when they land in Alaska. While those people don’t have to self-quarantine, the state is asking they minimize interactions with others until their test results come back.

Hedberg said while the timeline for getting back test results can vary and is dependent on state laboratories being able to keep up with demand, the typical wait time should be about two days.

But, she said, "it could take longer than 48 hours, and that’s just managing expectations.”

Hedberg encouraged travelers to prepare by communicating with their hotel in advance.

“Say, ‘I just arrived from this state. I’m waiting for my test results,'” she said.

During that time, order in food and avoid public places, she advised.

Alaska residents who opt to be tested in the airport will be given a voucher to take a second coronavirus test within 7-14 days of arrival. They are asked to minimize interactions with others until their second test result comes back negative.

In Anchorage, new restrictions require that travelers arriving in the city from out of state must minimize “in-person interactions” for 14 days, or until they clear a secondary round of testing performed at least seven days after they arrived in Alaska — whichever is earlier. Specifically, that means those travelers must wear face coverings around people who aren’t part of their household, and they may not dine in at restaurants or visit indoor facilities like theaters or gyms during that time frame.

For tourists and Alaska residents who prefer not to be tested, they can still agree to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival — no test needed.

“Again, quarantine means that you are not going out into the public," Hedberg said. "Do not go to the grocery store. Just call up DoorDash, you know, use one of those apps and have those groceries or that food delivered to where you were at.”

Whatever travelers choose, all are also required to fill out a travel declaration where they can note their preference. Screeners will be available at the airport to answer questions and direct traffic flow.

“We’re going to have 58 people working 12-hour shifts supporting this project," said Dennis Spencer with Capstone Clinic. "We’re going to have a lot of people on board in the airport to help.”

Hedberg said while the new rules can seem confusing, they ultimately were put into place to benefit everyone.

“We want people to come to Alaska, but we also want to make sure that everyone is safe,” she said.

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