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After reports of long delays, Alaska officials say they’ve made fixes to ensure faster COVID-19 airport test results

Air travelers entering Alaska wait in line for the screening station stand near a statue of the late Sen. Ted Stevens at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday, June 22, 2020. A health mandate requires passengers entering Alaska provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test and proof of completed travel declaration. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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Travelers to Alaska who opt to take an airport COVID-19 test when they arrive are likely to see shorter wait times for getting back their test results, Alaska state officials said Monday.

“We were still working out some of the kinks in our process,” Tessa Walker Linderman, the port of entry coordinator with the state, told reporters on Monday, acknowledging that there had been “significant delays” during the first few weeks of the new travel policy.

Getting tested at the airport and quarantining until the results come back is one option for travelers to the state, per rules for interstate and international travel that went into effect on June 6. Other options involve having to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival to Alaska or presenting a negative COVID-19 test result after landing.

The amount of time that passengers have had to wait and quarantine has varied, but as recently as last week, passengers were reporting waiting five days or more for their results.

For travelers landing in Anchorage, moving the process online and away from paper forms has sped things up, said Walker Linderman.

“We really are now seeing turnaround time within that 72-hour window,” she said. “All the airports are working through issues, trying to speed up this process.”

Screening station for air travelers entering Alaska at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Heidi Hedberg, director of public health in Alaska, said the initial delays were mainly a result of communication issues.

“The actual samples, when they’re collected, are all processed within the 72-hour timeframe,” she said. “The issue has been with getting those test results back to the person.”

Her team has been focused on creating a more seamless channel of communication between the airport testing sites, the state labs that process the tests and passengers, she said.

“I believe that over the weekend, we’ve been able to contact almost all travelers that were still missing results,” she added.

According to data shared by state officials on Monday, out of approximately 11,000 people screened in Alaska airports last week, about 4,200 were tested prior to departure, about 4,800 chose to get tested at the airport and close to 2,000 chose the 14-day quarantine option.

Of those tested at the airport last week, 13 positive cases were detected, they said.

Asked about enforcing quarantine for those awaiting test results or those who choose not to get tested at all, Hedberg said, “We’ve been very clear there are fines associated with that. But when we look at the other states, those have become really problematic and really difficult to enforce, which is why we really want to focus on the education and making sure people understand the ‘why’ behind this strategy around quarantining, around the monitoring, around what we’re doing at the airport.”

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Overall, state officials said they have seen a great deal of voluntary compliance with the new policy.

“We have had a couple of individuals that received their test results after they arrived in Alaska and they were positive,” said Hedberg. “And we’re very thankful that they abided by all of our education, which is quarantine until you get your test results. And so that messaging has been working really well.”

Alaska’s total COVID-19 case count is currently 871, including nonresidents, with 10 new positive cases confirmed Monday: three in Anchorage, and one each in Palmer, Wasilla and the North Slope Borough; and four nonresidents.

The number of active cases in state residents dropped slightly in Monday’s report to 258, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard.

One more resident was reported hospitalized Monday, bringing that total over the course of the pandemic to 62.

Thirteen residents are currently hospitalized with positive or pending test results.

Twelve Alaskans have died with the virus.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed to this story.

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