Alaska health department transitions airport COVID-19 testing toward rapid at-home tests

Published: Dec. 28, 2021 at 9:41 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is transitioning its COVID-19 testing provided at state airports towards rapid antigen tests as they move forward with a hybrid model, offering rapid and molecular tests.

“This is part of the culture shift,” said Heidi Hedberg, Alaska’s director of public health. “It’s easy, it’s convenient, we need to make sure there is easy access to it. But we also know there is going to be limited supply chain constraints on occasion. That’s just a part of this pandemic.”

The state launched a pilot program on Dec. 1 offering travelers at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport the option of a rapid antigen take-home test or a molecular test. Hedberg said they’ve found travelers opted for the two types COVID-19 tests at the same rates. She said molecular testing cost $62 per test, and rapid antigen test costs anywhere from $15 to $25 per test.

The shift to rapid antigen tests will impact case counts since more and more tests will be done at home rather than sent to a lab. State health officials said they will track trends of cases rather than case counts, similar to how they treat influenza data.

While more people will be turning to home COVID-19 testing, laboratory testing will still be occurring in Alaska in several situations.

“Laboratory test results will continue to be reportable and so we will continue to monitor case rate trends over time using the laboratory-based surveillance data that we have as well as hospitalization and death data,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. “... We’re really relying heavily on Alaskans to do the right thing with respect to self-isolation if they are positive — following the guidance there — and then notifying their own close contacts if they do come up positive.”

McLaughlin found out on Tuesday that the federal government is working towards procuring 500 million rapid antigen tests that will be distributed through a federal website. Until the supply is robust enough for over-the-counter rapid antigen tests, McLaughlin said they will continue to supplement them with other tests.

The state’s contract to provide on-site testing at Alaska airports ends at the end of January.

“We want to make sure that we do continue to provide access to testing, through community sites, public health centers, and through the airports because we know that Alaskans travel,” Hedberg said. “And we want to mitigate the spread of this virus, and so we’re just transitioning from that molecular test over to the antigen test.”

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