Anchorage Health Department announces expanded testing hours, sites after ‘disaster’ led to delays and closures

Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 5:35 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 7, 2022 at 6:01 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage Municipal Health Director Joe Gerace said Friday he expects more drive-through COVID-19 testing sites to open in Anchorage in the near future following a series of delays and site closures tied to extreme winter weather in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Expanded hours are also expected with some sites planning to operate 24 hours a day.

The announcement comes amid criticism that some sites, which are now operated by private businesses, were closed earlier in the week with little notice and that lines were particularly long. Capstone Clinic, the private company that now runs the sites previously operated by the city, cited the severe windstorm in the Mat-Su, where the company and much of its staff is located. Equipment was damaged, and many employees could not get from the Valley to Anchorage on Monday.

Gerace said, given the circumstances, the delays were understandable. He noted that in addition to the severe weather event in the Valley, staffing at the health department was less than usual due to the holidays.

“And then we had the perfect storm literally with a storm in Fairbanks and a storm in the Mat-Su,” he said. “And, you know, in totality could it have been handled better? Probably. But in truth, I think we had a pretty good response given the parameters. I mean there was some pretty intense weather that resulted in some delays.”

Gerace said weather-related events could hamper testing operations in the future, but “what we’ll do better is message it.”

The Municipality of Anchorage transitioned away from running its own testing sites to having them run by private companies last month.

“The truthful answer is, I believe private industry can handle what’s going on if we discount that we had a true disaster,” said Gerace. “I mean this isn’t a windstorm, this was a true disaster in the Valley that affected that provider.”

There had also been an issue with at-home COVID-19 test kits, billed as an option for people who don’t want to wait in line. Until recently, the city was giving out the kits for free at local recreation centers in Spenard and Fairview. That was halted on Tuesday, again due to the windstorm in the Mat-Su, the city said on its website at the time. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office explained that Anchorage stores the at-home test kits it gets from the state in the Valley.

Now, they’ve run out of those kits, and Gerace said he doesn’t know exactly when they’ll be getting more. There is a very small number of at-home tests left being reserved for things like congregate living facilities.

“We’ve been trying to buy them for about a month and a half. Obviously, there’s just no availability,” Gerace said. “And then when the president said he said he was going to buy half a billion of them, 500 million of them, nobody would even return calls, because I think they’re all waiting on, you know, the federal purchase order to roll in and grab the stock they have.”

The city health department announced earlier this week it was requesting another 25,000 test kits from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Despite that, Gerace said he’s confident there will be enough testing for people who truly need it. He added that some of the people who’ve been complaining about waiting in long lines may not be symptomatic or had what he described as “a significant exposure”.

“I personally think we need some kind of express lane for, ‘I’m feverish, I have, you know, 10 of the symptoms.’ We need to get that person because, if we wait ... a lot of the treatment options have disappeared other than the ER, and I don’t want to load those ERs.”

Gerace said in a video posted to the health department’s social media that, in the coming days, some sites will be open 24 hours, and hours of operation will be expanded at other sites. Additional testing sites will also become available for the public, he said in the video. Further details on new testing sites were not yet available Friday, but should be soon at the city’s COVID-19 testing website.

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