Anchorage

Anchorage Assembly approves $2.65 million request from Bronson team to fully restore COVID-19 testing

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night approved a request from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration for $2.65 million to fully restore COVID-19 testing levels after city health officials said a lack of funding prompted a reduction in hours and a shift in guidance at city-controlled testing locations.

Testing levels will be restored through the end of November and will encompass “the largest span of open hours since June of 2020,” Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, said Wednesday after the Assembly approved the funding request.

The mayor’s administration requested the additional funding Tuesday in an emergency ordinance that passed 9-2. Assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy voted against the ordinance after it was amended to change the source of funding from the areawide capital improvements projects fund — which the Bronson administration proposed — to the areawide general fund, which was proposed by Assembly members Meg Zaletel, Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar. It wasn’t immediately clear how that change might affect the city’s testing plan.

The additional funding fills a gap that resulted from a dramatic rise in COVID-19 testing since midsummer, Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace said recently. Anchorage’s daily case counts reached new pandemic highs in the current surge, and more cases have been identified as more people have sought testing with widespread virus transmission occurring.

Gerace said existing funding for virus testing wouldn’t last through the end of October if testing levels continued at the same pace, which is why the city now emphasizes that its contracted sites run by Visit Healthcare are intended for use “only people with COVID-19 symptoms or close contacts of a COVID-19 case.” Other testing locations remain available to the public, and a city health department spokesperson said that people seeking testing who don’t meet those criteria won’t be turned away.

Testing sites over the weekend and Monday in Anchorage saw long lines, including at the popular Loussac Library drive-thru site, which had more than a dozen cars in line an hour before it opened Monday.

Starting last Friday, the city cut 108 hours per week from the testing schedule at its sites, which include the Loussac Library, Changepoint Church and the Muldoon Community Assembly. That step was also necessary to help sustain testing through the rest of the month, Gerace said.

The additional funding should restore testing to previous levels through the end of November, according to Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young.

The question of where the additional money for city testing should come from prompted debate among Assembly members and Bronson administration officials. Chief fiscal officer Travis Frisk discouraged Assembly members from changing funding sources. He cited the slow pace of FEMA reimbursement — COVID-19 testing costs are reimbursable by the federal government — and potential impacts on the unallocated fund deficit as reasons to source money from the areawide capital improvement projects fund.

But Quinn-Davidson and others questioned his characterization of both the city’s fiscal outlook and the availability of money in the areawide general fund, which they described as the city’s “savings account” that can be tapped into if warranted in an emergency. Quinn-Davidson also expressed concern that using money from the capital improvement projects fund could jeopardize the city’s plans to address homelessness, though Frisk countered that other financing options are available once it’s time to build a shelter.

A motion supported by Kennedy and Allard to push back a vote on the emergency ordinance by two to three days to allow for a special meeting failed, 9-2.

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