Jan. 31 is the last day travelers will have access to on-site COVID-19 testing at Alaska’s airports, according to the state health department.
On-site PCR testing is currently available at many airports around the state, with lab results available in about a day. That service is made possible through airport testing contracts with Capstone Clinic and local providers that run through the end of January and won’t be renewed, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services spokeswoman Elizabeth Manning said Thursday.
Instead, the state will plan to hand out take-home rapid tests at three major airports — in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau — while travelers to other Alaska airports will need to go elsewhere in those communities for tests, Manning said.
The change partially came in response to the decreased popularity of airport testing sites in recent months and increased popularity of rapid tests, Manning said.
Although rapid tests are not quite as sensitive, they’re quicker and more convenient than PCR or molecular tests, which typically take at least a day for labs to process — and rapid tests are still “really effective,” Manning said.
“With antigen tests, you have an answer within 10 or 15 minutes instead of a day or more. And I think people really like being able to take them home and use them,” she said.
Early in the pandemic, the state began offering on-site PCR testing to travelers arriving at multiple Alaska airports. A requirement that had been in place for months mandating testing before or upon arrival for nonresidents coming from out of state became optional in February 2021, when Alaska’s COVID-19 emergency expired.
Approximately 6,000 COVID-19 cases have been identified through airport testing in Alaska since June 2020, according to the state.
At the end of November 2021, state officials announced that testing locations at airports in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Ketchikan would be located behind security for ticketed passengers only — and that they were launching a pilot program at Anchorage’s airport to distribute free, at-home rapid test kits to passengers.
At-home tests, already available in Anchorage, will soon be available for inbound travelers to the Fairbanks and Juneau airports, Manning said.
Alaska’s latest shift to take-home rapid tests instead of on-site PCR testing at airports is part of a recent shift in national strategy to respond as quickly as possible to new cases, especially as the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads around the world. This week, President Joe Biden announced that a half-billion rapid tests would be available for free home delivery.
Since October, Alaska has received more than 150,000 rapid tests through federal funding, and most public health centers around the state currently have those in stock, Manning said.
COVID-19 vaccinations will also still be offered indefinitely at airports in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, she said.
Following a deadly virus surge in the summer and fall that overwhelmed the state’s hospitals, Alaska’s case rate, test positivity and hospitalizations have been steadily decreasing since last month.
According to the state’s testing dashboard, an average of 3.58% of tests conducted over the last week have come back positive.