Anchorage residents should see more available COVID-19 testing — including new sites and expanded hours — in the coming days, the city health department director said Friday.
“There’s no way we don’t have more testing in the next, you know, 72 hours kind of thing,” Anchorage Health Department director Joe Gerace told reporters. “That’s a fact.”
The change comes after several members of the public and some on the Anchorage Assembly described frustrations with the city’s testing situation, citing long waits for tests and results as well as confusion over when sites were open.
The highly transmissible omicron variant bearing down on the state country has also added to anxiety and demand for testing. On Friday, Alaska reported a record 3,640 COVID-19 cases over two days, and with cases increasing significantly, more health care workers are calling in sick. Anchorage residents accounted for 2,062 of those cases.
Over the past several days, some in Anchorage reported hours-long waits for tests, an issue exacerbated by an extremely destructive windstorm that moved through Mat-Su and hampered the ability of many test site staffers to come into work in Anchorage.
Gerace on Friday characterized recent testing issues as a “perfect storm” of severe weather in Mat-Su, a holiday week and staffing challenges like quarantine and isolation at the department.
“In totality, could it have been handled better? Probably,” he said. “But in truth, I think we had a pretty good response given the parameters.”
Last month, the city decided to privatize COVID-19 testing and halt further contracting with private entities for broad testing across Anchorage to save money at a time when testing demand was decreasing, Gerace said.
Now, the municipality has a network of privately run and non-city-funded sites operated by health care companies such as Capstone Clinic and Beacon Occupational Health & Safety Services. Gerace said he thinks private industry can handle the current situation.
While the Anchorage Health Department does not control the testing sites since there’s no contractual agreement, Gerace said the department does work with the private companies, sharing data and helping suggest certain places in Anchorage where a testing site might go.
There’s always a chance weather could get in the way of operations, as it did recently, but, “what we’ll do better is message it,” Gerace said.
On Friday, Gerace said that the municipality was out of at-home rapid tests, which the department had been distributing, save for a small few reserved for congregate living facilities.
The Anchorage Health Department — which has seen the departure of its medical officer, epidemiologist and public health division manager since Mayor Dave Bronson took office in July — has hired additional health officials, Gerace said.
Those additions include a grant-funded epidemiologist and physician as well as an in-house epidemiologist who is directly employed by the Anchorage Health Department.
With those additions, Gerace said there should be a “much, much more robust information stream for you, as we’ve gotten into a place where we’re properly staffed.”