High winds and hazardous road conditions in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough caused many of the employees staffing COVID-19 testing sites in Southcentral Alaska, including Anchorage, to miss work on Monday at a time when demand is surging.
The labor shortage was unexpected and poorly communicated, leading many residents to vent online about long wait times for tests, and shuttered sites with no physical or online notices explaining the closures.
“The weather was pretty much the entire factor. Half my staff lives in the Valley,” said Matt Jones, general manager of outside operations for Capstone Clinic, a private healthcare company headquartered in Wasilla that has handled the Municipality of Anchorage’s testing sites since December. “People just didn’t feel safe coming to work today.”
Jones said the company did not anticipate the staffing problems prior to Monday morning and scrambled to move personnel around to keep some degree of operations up and running.
“People were calling out left and right,”' Jones said.
Most of the company’s administration and healthcare operations are headquartered in the Mat-Su. Those were closed on Monday, as well.
On social media, Anchorage residents posted their experiences waiting for hours to receive PCR tests.
Adding to the frustration was the fact that information on testing availability offered through the Municipality’s health department was directly contradicted by what people were experiencing at those sites. Though the city doesn’t provide mass-testing services of its own, in the past it has helped guide residents to state-run and private testing operations. Online, several locations were listed as open but were not.
“Definitely check all the websites, there’s some locations that are closed, there are some that are open,” said Tiffany Brown, who waited in line for 3 hours and 45 minutes for a PCR test at a site in Midtown Anchorage Monday.
Two of Brown’s children tested positive, and though she had been scheduled to go to work, her employer requested that she get a test.
The situation’s severity was compounded by the rising demand, as people return from out-of-state travel and infections from the highly contagious omicron variant appears to be accelerating faster than any previous wave of the virus.
Jones said it was afternoon by the time city personnel reached out to his team to ask what was happening.
“In the hecticness of it today, I failed to send them that message,” Jones said.
Neither the Anchorage Health Department nor the mayor’s office appeared to have put out any messaging on social media directly clarifying the situation as of Monday night, though on Twitter Mayor Dave Bronson encouraged residents to pick up take-home rapid tests from city-run sites and to double-check testing hours at state-run sites.
As of Monday, free at-home test kits had run out at both city-run sites, though supplies are expected back Tuesday. Home tests were hard to find in stores.
Jones said Capstone plans to have all of its Anchorage sites staffed normally on Tuesday, “Barring any other fires that may come up.”
The company’s testing site at the Sears in Wasilla is not scheduled to be open because it is still without power.
Bill Roth contributed reporting to this story.