Alaska officials say it’s taking longer than they had hoped to process COVID-19 tests obtained at airports — meaning travelers may be having to quarantine longer than planned while they wait for results.
The new state policy that went into effect this month allows passengers traveling to Alaska to forgo a 14-day quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19. One way to comply with the policy is to get a test at the airport upon landing and quarantine until a negative test result comes back.
Just before the policy went into effect, Heidi Hedberg, director of Alaska’s Division of Public Health, predicted in a press briefing that the typical wait time for getting results from tests conducted at an Alaska airport should be about two days.
She said, "It could take longer than 48 hours, and that’s just managing expectations.”
So far, the wait time for many travelers has been longer.
Courtney Bailly, 26, flew into Anchorage late last Tuesday for a summer job as a gymnastics instructor. She said that while the process of getting tested at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport went smoothly, she didn’t receive notice of her negative test result until the following Monday — six days later.
“It was pretty frustrating,” she said, explaining that her work start date ended up getting postponed.
“Because we’ve been testing so many people, the state labs have a lot to process, and we are taking about three to five days to get those results back,” said Micky Boyer, operations manager at Capstone Family Medicine. The state has contracted with Capstone to conduct the airport testing.
"I don’t think it’s realistic to consider it taking less time than that any time soon,” Boyer said.
The delay has to do with challenges related to electronic communication, according to Bernd Jilly, chief doctor at a state lab in Anchorage that is responsible for processing hundreds of tests per day.
“We’ve been processing tests faster than we could transit those results back to the airport,” he explained.
While the actual processing of tests can, in fact, happen within two days, communicating with Capstone and the patients isn’t as speedy, he said.
“Having one computer talk to another computer is harder than you think,” he said.
Jilly said he and his team, along with Capstone Clinic, are working diligently to “refine our technique” and work out better methods for reporting. He said he hopes that within a few weeks, the wait times will get shorter.
“We do empathize with people who are waiting on their results," he added, “and we’re plugging away, doing the best we can.”
Bob McDonald, 78, from Las Vegas, has been taking an annual weeklong fishing trip to Alaska every August for the past 20 years. He said he’s worried he’ll have to cancel his trip if wait times stay the same. Quarantining for five days out of a six-day trip just doesn’t make sense.
His other option, as outlined by the state, is to get tested within 72 hours of departure, and then present that negative test result upon arrival in Alaska. But McDonald says this option isn’t doable for him, either.
“I’ve checked with different labs here,” McDonald said. No doctor he talked to could promise results within 72 hours, and very few were testing patients without COVID-19 symptoms, he said.
McDonald said he’s carefully following the news in Alaska to see if any more travel policy changes happen between now and his trip.
“I’m hoping they eliminate the testing altogether,” he said.
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