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Alaska coronavirus Q&A: How are people here getting COVID-19? And what’s the deal with testing numbers?

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It might feel like the COVID-19 pandemic has been going on forever. But the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is still relatively new. Questions abound, and information from public officials is at times contradictory or confusing.

As the weeks and months push on, we want to know what questions you might have about COVID-19, and we want to help answer them.

Have a question of your own? Fill out the form at the bottom of this article.

Why does it look like fewer people are getting tested now than in the past?

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, which reports all of the state’s COVID-19 data, recently changed the way it reports testing data.

Before, the department reported all of the test results it received each day on that day. Now, instead of displaying results based on the day the department received them, it is displaying them based on the day the tests were conducted.

Doing so better portrays when people are getting tested and “smooths out day-to-day variability caused by lags in test completion,” such as fewer tests being completed on weekends or labs that might have backlogs, according to the department.

Since COVID-19 tests can take a few days to return results, it looks like there were fewer tests conducted recently. But officials at the department say that’s because they just don’t have the results for the most recent tests yet.

Where and how are people getting COVID-19 in Alaska?

The state’s health department sends out a recap of the previous week’s COVID-19 data every Wednesday, which helps paint a more specific picture of the pandemic in the 49th state.

In their most recent summary, Alaska health officials wrote that in March, many of the state’s cases were related to travel. In April and May, fewer Alaskans traveled but as more Alaskans have started to travel since June, more cases are now again tied to travel.

The most recent week saw 61% of Alaska’s cases tied to secondary or community transmission. And, the largest increase in cases has been among people in their 20s and 30s.

The spread of COVID-19 among people at social gatherings, community events, churches and bars — in addition to the spread of the virus within families — has “significantly contributed” to Alaska’s rising case counts, a previous report said.

Anchorage continues to see cases citywide, Anchorage Health Department medical officer Dr. Bruce Chandler said during a briefing on Aug. 21. He said Anchorage had identified infectious cases at a child care facility, an adult care facility, a shelter and an athletic team group residence, as well as cases involving employees at several local businesses.

“I’m sure there are others that haven’t come to our attention,” Chandler said.

There are thousands of people who are still at a high risk for the virus in Anchorage. Plus, even if people have no symptoms at all, they can be “highly infectious” to others nearby, he said.

Seven people from Anchorage had died with COVID-19 in the past month, Chandler said Aug. 21 — a number that has since risen.

“I think some of those people would well be alive if we’d done a better job of protecting them from the virus,” Chandler said.

Inbound passengers Alex Koehler and Melissa Engelhardt listen to instructions from Marvell Robinson at the COVID-19 testing site in the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on July 17, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

What happens if someone who doesn’t live in Alaska gets here without getting a test and refuses to pay for one at the airport?

For context: Alaska has changed its rules for incoming travelers. Since Aug. 11, nonresidents arriving into the state have been required to take a COVID-19 test before departing or pay $250 for a test at the airport.

So far, the state hasn’t had to deal with someone refusing to get tested at the airport after arriving without proof of a test, according to Coleman Cutchins, clinical pharmacist and testing coordinator with the state.

But if people do refuse, the airport screeners will ask for their contact information so the state can come up with a plan, he said on an Aug. 20 call with reporters. If a person truly cannot afford a test, the state might find a way for the person to get tested for free and quarantine until they get their results, he said.

What are false positive and false negative COVID-19 test results, and how common are they?

False positive test results — showing that someone has the illness when they actually don’t — are not common in coronavirus testing. The test for the virus is “highly specific,” according to the state’s health department, meaning it “almost never gives a false positive.”

However, false negatives, which show that someone doesn’t have the virus when they really do, can happen. This might happen if it’s too early in someone’s illness to detect COVID-19.

Jesse Guyer, left, and Callie Palmer, right, hike Little O'Malley Peak in Chugach State Park on Aug. 22, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

How do you safely navigate Alaska’s trails in the midst of a pandemic?

The state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Joe McLaughlin, uses Anchorage’s trail system, he said during a recent public video call. Navigating the outdoors comes down to personal choice, he said.

If someone tests positive for COVID-19, anyone who was within 6 feet of them for more than fifteen minutes is deemed a close contact, which means walking past someone on the trail doesn’t fit that category.

“Now, certainly, if the person is breathing hard and were to cough right on you, like give you a direct face shot of a cough, you might get exposed to COVID if they’re infected,” McLaughlin said.

When he’s out hiking, McLaughlin said, he’ll step off the trail, turn his head or will even hold his breath if he starts to get too close to someone.

But, if someone is at a higher risk for COVID-19, he said they should take more precautions.

Similarly, the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said her kids use the “grumpy dog theory,” meaning to stay away from people the way you’d keep a grumpy dog away from people along trails. They often “dive into the woods and go 6 feet off the trail,” Zink said.

She also keeps a mask around for crowded trailheads and wears one if she goes blueberry picking by a trail where others might show up.

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