‘We gotta help one another’: Portraits from the front line of coronavirus detection in Anchorage

Meet some of the team of health care workers who are collecting nasal swabs in a soggy Lake Otis Parkway parking lot.

Health care workers from all of Anchorage’s major hospitals have joined forces in the city’s effort to detect COVID-19. This week, they turned a soggy parking lot along Lake Otis Parkway into a drive-through testing center and have tested several hundred people in just days.

The free testing is a team effort of Providence Alaska Medical Center, Alaska Regional Hospital, Alaska Native Medical Center and Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center. About 30 workers take shifts, about six at a time, from 9 a.m to 7 p.m. seven days a week. Nasal swabs collected here are then sent to a lab in Arizona to determine if the virus is present, a process that takes 4-5 days, according to Providence spokesperson Kirsten Schultz.

Project manager Ashley Johnson said they began ramping up on Monday. From Tuesday through Friday, 756 people were tested, Johnson said.

“I think we seem to be a pretty well-oiled machine at this point,” Johnson said.

Standing outside Saturday morning as snow fell, Providence nurse Anaka Thorsted said she’d probably be at home on the sofa with her dog if she weren’t on site. But swabbing noses is where she chooses to be.

“It’s really nice to be able to offer the community the support and the testing that desperately needs to happen up here,” said Thorstead.

“It’s impacting our economy massively,” Thorsted said of the pandemic. “I think that trying to promote getting tested and providing that service to people, we can hopefully stop it in its tracks.”

We're making coronavirus coverage available without a subscription as a public service. But we depend on reader support to do this work. Please consider joining others in supporting local journalism in Alaska for just $3.23 a week.

Not everyone pitching in comes from a clinical profession. Providence Alaska Foundation president Suzanne Carte-Cocroft said she was looking for a way she could help without getting in the way. Wearing fogged goggles, she asked screening questions to patients and checked for clinical referrals, which are required prior to testing.

“I was glad to be able to come this weekend and feel like I could do something,” she said.

Testing center staff say they’re encouraged by the kind words of the people they test. Jefferson Deguzman, a WEKA security worker, said some strangers have even dropped off coffee and donuts to show appreciation. Providence nurse Josh Jones said health care workers seem to have a skill for keeping the mood light, even when the situation is tense.

“We know a lot of people are sick and suffering…,” Jones said. “Looking for the positives, looking for a way to help like this are all ways that we can feel like we’re making a difference.”

Providence clinical lab assistant Eric Estrada being a part of the team makes him proud and gives him hope.

“We all know the risk. We know how contagious it is and what it’s doing out there, and the impact and the ripple it has done to this globe,” Estrada said. “But I just feel like this is our responsibility. We gotta help one another.”

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.