As Alaska continues to lead the nation in new daily COVID-19 cases per capita, one important mitigation tool — testing — is currently lagging behind other states.
“We used to be testing about twice the national average,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said Wednesday. “We are now testing about a third of the national average at this point, so our testing has really decreased compared to the rest of the United States.”
That decrease is mostly a reflection of other states boosting testing rather than any reductions in Alaska, Zink said.
“I would say it’s less that Alaska’s testing has significantly decreased, and it’s more than the rest of the nation has significantly increased,” she said.
State data shows that Alaska has been conducting a continually high volume of tests in recent months, especially compared to other points in the pandemic.
The state’s coronavirus testing dashboard shows that a similar number of tests were performed most days in August and September as compared to last November and December, during the state’s previous surge in cases and hospitalizations.
Still, data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday ranked Alaska in 40th place among all states based on its per capita testing over the last week.
Zink said a major reason for the shift in national ranking is that while other states in the Lower 48 have ramped up widespread “screening” testing for school districts, universities, workplaces and events, that strategy hasn’t taken off in Alaska in the same way.
A lot of testing is still happening in Alaska — just not as much as in other states.
“Some states are moving to kind of a ‘test to stay’ within the school district, and then also major universities have been another big powerhouse of purchasing screening tests,” she said. “Involvement hasn’t been quite the same up here.”
Testing has long been considered an important way of detecting coronavirus cases and early and preventing widespread transmission. Since the pandemic arrived in the state in spring 2020, over 3 million coronavirus tests have been conducted in Alaska.
In Anchorage over the last few months, a dramatic rise in demand for testing ultimately led the city to change its guidance and decrease testing hours.
In June, the state’s largest city was conducting around 100 to 200 tests a day. But by September, when the highly contagious delta variant was pushing case counts to new pandemic highs, Anchorage was at times conducting as many as 1,900 tests a day.
That was far more than the city had expected to pay for, and municipal officials cut hours at testing locations in an effort to preserve testing availability as funds were running low, Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace said last week.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly approved an additional funding request from the Bronson administration that would provide enough money to restore testing levels through November, beginning Monday.
It is difficult to tell from Anchorage’s testing numbers whether the municipality’s recent changes led to a decrease in tests conducted since that data is preliminary, a health department spokesperson said in an email.
But statewide, the average percentage of tests coming back positive has continued climbing, reaching about 11% positivity this week — a record high, and an indication of widespread transmission and not enough testing. (Epidemiologists say it’s ideal to keep that percentage below at least 5%.)
As part of a broader mitigation plan, CDC school guidance recommends regular “screening testing” for staff and students who are unvaccinated.
Another possible reason for Alaska’s lower testing numbers compared to the rest of the country is that the state relies heavily on rapid tests, especially in rural communities off the road system where sending PCR tests to state and commercial labs requires may pose more of a challenge.
Rapid tests have been in short supply nationally in recent weeks, which has led to some “testing limitations in the space,” Zink said.
The big testing supply shortage impacted one rural health care provider and led them to conserve certain supplies in order to keep villages stocked with rapid tests, said Jenna Royer, lead medical laboratory scientist at the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s Fairbanks facility.
Rapid testing is important in village settings, Royer said, because of how quickly the virus can spread through communities.
“Knowing that somebody is testing positive right away is going to make things a lot more safer for Alaskans out in the villages,” Royer said. “It’s going to be able to provide them with care a little quicker, they’re going to be able to quarantine and keep the rest of their family and friends safe.”
Early on in the pandemic, Alaska’s coronavirus response included making tests widely and easily accessible across the state. As part of an aggressive strategy to protect a vulnerable and isolated health care system, Alaska was testing thousands of asymptomatic seafood workers and travelers coming into the state.
By summer 2020, the state had quickly become one of the most-tested states in the nation.
These days, Zink said she recommended that employers and schools look at testing options for individual workplaces rather than relying on the city’s larger testing clinics “because when everyone relies on a few centers at once, they can become very overwhelmed very quickly.”
And Alaskans should continue to get tested if they have any symptoms that have been linked to the virus, even mild ones.
“If you think it’s allergies, if you think it’s just a runny nose, it might be COVID,” Zink said. “If you have any possible symptom, regardless of vaccine status, you’ve got to get tested.”