Vexation with Anchorage’s approach to COVID-19 testing grew to new levels this week as rising demand for tests placed added pressure on a system that recently shifted from city management to private operations.
Frustrations around testing escalated when certain sites unexpectedly remained closed during their listed hours of operation and other sites had hours-long waits in the past several days. The issues were exacerbated by severe weather north of Anchorage that prevented many staff who work for Capstone Clinic, one major testing provider, to commute into the city.
Anxieties are also growing that the municipality’s testing capacity is unprepared for a seismic increase in cases linked to the emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant.
Alaska’s health department may report more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases over a two-day period on Friday, chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink said in an interview Thursday. It’s likely that surge is driven by omicron, which is proving to be highly transmissible but generally leads to milder cases, especially in previously vaccinated people or those with prior infections.
Members of the public and Anchorage Assembly members are seeking clarity from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration on why testing accessibility appears to be strained in many areas, even as Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace said in a video posted to to AHD’s Facebook page this week that testing “is really in a better place than it was two months ago.”
Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the mayor, said Thursday that “testing is 100% a priority of this administration.”
With many in the city seeking COVID-19 tests after holiday travels and virus exposures amid a rise in cases locally, the role the Anchorage Health Department plays in ensuring testing availability has been muddied by its recent shift away from overseeing test site operations and scattered communications reflecting a situation very much in flux.
By Thursday evening, the city health department said it didn’t have any more at-home test kits to distribute in the near future. The kits are in high demand, and since they’re not always affordable or easy to find at local retail outlets, tests distributed by the city have been snapped up quickly.
The move to testing privatization
The city had contracted with testing provider Visit Healthcare from July 2020 until December 2021 to run municipal COVID-19 testing. But in early December, the municipality abruptly and with little notice closed the popular testing site at the Loussac Library and opened a new location on C Street. By the end of December, the Visit Healthcare contract was over.
At the time, Gerace — who formerly worked as Visit Healthcare’s operations director — said the city was allowing private companies to take over testing and that the city was “getting out of the city-funded testing business” as a cost-saving measure.
In response to questions about why the city decided to stop contracting with a provider for municipal testing, Young said Wednesday that testing demand “was trending down,” the contract had expired in June and that private companies’ testing sites have “actually increased locations and hours.”
Capstone Clinic took over testing as a private commercial operation, not a provider contracted by the municipality. Matthew Jones, general manager of outside operations for Capstone, described the change in clear terms last month: “There is no contract, oversight, or partnership with the Municipality and Capstone.”
The move to testing privatization reflected a major change for a city health department that has had to adjust after the departure of multiple senior officials in the months since Bronson took office.
Numerous community members expressed concern this week about testing sites that were closed when they were supposed to be open, as well as lengthy delays at on-site testing locations. Some of the issues were attributable to severe winds in Mat-Su, where residents were told to shelter in place and some employees of testing providers could not come to work in Anchorage.
The city testing locations website, anchoragecovidtest.org, lists testing locations and hours by day. Gerace said in an email to Assembly members that that was a factor in why some sites are closed when people show up: He said that in many cases, people are looking at the wrong day for testing site information.
Vendors also submit location hours when they register to be listed on the website, Gerace said in the email, and “the listing does not have special ‘one off’ daily schedules for weather delays, holidays or staffing issues.”
After confusion over testing location closures this week, Capstone on Thursday began posting information about specific testing sites and their status on the company Facebook page.
“This was created as a tool to help us better communicate with all parties and the public, what is happening with testing from our end,” Jones, with Capstone, said in an email.
Capstone’s four main community sites in Anchorage — Alaska Park, C Street, Change Point and Calista Court — reported delays of one to two hours Thursday. Capstone’s Wasilla location at the Sears building remained closed due to storm damage.
Zink said the state health department is tracking the Anchorage Health Department’s testing progress.
Anchorage, as well as the North Slope Borough, has its own health powers, receiving separate funding to manage everything from vaccination to messaging to testing, she said.
“There’s been a significant transition at the Anchorage Health Department, both in personnel (and) strategy,” Zink said. “We are tracking that testing has been limited, communication has been challenging and continue to try to do what we can to serve every Alaskan, Anchorage resident or not.”
Complaints and criticism
Testing was the topic of an Anchorage Assembly health policy committee meeting Wednesday. No representatives of the Anchorage Health Department attended, which committee chair and Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia characterized as “extremely unusual,” saying that hasn’t happened before while he’s been chair.
Perez-Verdia said he had hoped to hear directly from the administration about why the city changed its testing and how testing efforts are going. The night before the meeting, municipal manager Amy Demboski told him that she and Gerace were too busy to attend and they felt as though they’d already provided enough information, Perez-Verdia said in an interview.
During the meeting, members of the public testified about the current testing situation in the city, citing frustration over confusing site hours and long waits for testing and results — impacts that were complicating everything from child care to staffing decisions in workplaces that require testing.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said he began fielding constituent complaints about the city’s approach to testing last month, after the municipality closed Visit Healthcare sites. He said concerns accelerated toward the end of the month and into January.
“We have seen a very marked increase in number of complaints regarding testing,” Dunbar said in an interview. “And more than I can remember at any other point during the pandemic.”
Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson in an interview Wednesday questioned why the city had decided to stop funding testing sites and move to privatization.
“Why would we stop operating the centers that we’ve been operating, that provide free, easy, reliable access to residents?” asked Quinn-Davidson, who served as acting mayor for several months before Bronson took office. “I don’t understand why the administration would do that, unless they didn’t want people to test.”
She noted that city-funded testing is reimbursable through March under a federal disaster declaration, and she said that tests now “are harder to access.”
Young, the mayor’s spokesman, said that he wasn’t sure where Quinn-Davidson’s questions were coming from and that the mayor has prioritized and increased COVID-19 testing since taking office.
Not all members of the committee raised concerns with the administration’s current COVID-19 response. Assembly member Jamie Allard, an outspoken supporter of Bronson’s whose positions generally align with his, thanked his administration for the emails and information that officials have sent out, saying they’d answered every question she had asked via links and videos.
Dunbar said many of the constituent complaints he’s forwarded to the health department have not received responses, though this week both Demboski and Gerace responded to Assembly members by email.
At-home tests and a shifting situation
In his email, Gerace attached a map of several testing sites in Anchorage, and shared the state’s COVID-19 help line number and a link to the city’s COVID-19 response website. He noted that the health department had received many questions about the UAA test site, which is managed by the state. He also said the city has distributed thousands of at-home test kits and ordered more, and that the health department plans to continue handing out kits until the supply is exhausted.
“We focused this round of distribution sites around our most at-risk populations and community members,” he wrote in the email.
Other specifics weren’t included in his email or in responses to follow-up questions sent to the mayor’s office later, although Young said that the city health department “has been working with multiple vendors to find a supply stream.”
The city was distributing at-home test kits at the Fairview and Spenard Recreation Centers, though supplies were limited and tests have sometimes run out before the end of the scheduled distribution times. The kits, which have an expiration date of January 2022, expire at the end of the month, according to Hans Rodvik, Mayor Bronson’s deputy communications director.
“With the increase in demand for these kits and testing in general, it’s expected the public will use them prior to the expiration date,” Rodvik said by email.
The situation with home test distribution was changing rapidly: On Wednesday, the city said tests would only be distributed the following day at the Fairview Recreation Center. On Thursday, the Fairview site had run out of home test kits by 2 p.m., two hours into a four-hour distribution window.
The city also gave notice late Thursday morning, just a couple hours in advance, that it would be distributing test kits at the Salvation Army Food Pantry over a three-hour window that afternoon.
Much of the city’s new information about at-home testing distribution seems to now be appearing at the top of anchoragecovidtest.org, which was updated throughout the day Thursday.
By Thursday evening, the note at the top of the page had been updated once more: “There are no remaining AHD at-home Covid test kits to distribute in the immediate future. 25K have been given out since 12/29. This page will have updates for any new opportunities.”