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At-home COVID tests scarce as Alaskans worry about freezing temperatures

Demand during omicron-driven surge raises questions about availability, reporting
Published: Jan. 14, 2022 at 2:13 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreading rapidly through Alaska and the country, the supply of at-home tests is dwindling as Alaskans seek to test themselves at home rather than wait in long drive-through lines. But trouble finding the tests, tests with upcoming expiration dates, and storage temperature requirements have many people wondering what to do next.

“Over the counter rapid at-home kits are extremely scarce,” said Dr. Coleman Cutchins, the state’s testing coordinator, in a Wednesday online availability. “Everyone in the country is currently trying to buy those and the supply chain is limited.”

He said there is hope that in the next two to four weeks there would be more availability of the at-home tests.

Though the federal government has promised to deliver at-home tests to Americans who want them, the state of Alaska says temperature issues with many of the at-home tests have led to Alaska’s tests being shipped in bulk to health centers rather than individually to people’s homes. The federal government’s online ordering site is set to launch next week.

“When they’re bulk shipped, they’re shipped temperature controlled, and when they’re shipped individually, they’re not,” Cutchins said.

He said if Alaskans are going to order tests online, they should track the shipment and make sure someone is home to receive it.

Earlier, the federal government had provided the state with at-home tests to distribute, but they quickly ran out, and the feds are not sending more, said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer.

“We’re trying to purchase what we can in that space, but they are incredibly limited, because everybody does want them,” she said.

The switch from a mass government-driven effort on testing to a privatized one is causing some hiccups, Zink said.

“We are really switching from this publicly driven testing resource to a much more commercial market and direct-delivery resource,” she said. “and it is bumpy, particularly in the setting of the omicron variant and the huge demand for testing.”

Zink urged Alaskans to “hang in there” through the transition and utilize a wide variety of testing options when needed, noting that testing types and availability vary across the state.

Some of those changes — particularly privatized testing sites — have made it harder for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to keep up with changing testing sites and hours. The state’s website isn’t always notified of changes made by private providers, and weather challenges earlier in the month in Southcentral Alaska added to the struggle.

“It’s challenging to keep up to date as a state site, as private businesses can open and close what they want, when they want to,” Zink said.

The Municipality of Anchorage, which recently transitioned to all private-run sites, has its own testing locator website. The municipality has also run out of its allocation of at-home tests from the state. The Anchorage Health Department announced it was requesting more.

Many Alaskans are also discovering that the at-home tests they acquired are set to expire at the end of this month. Cutchins says the Food and Drug Administration is considering extending the expiration date on those tests, and that some manufacturers have already done so.

“The best advice I can give people in general is go to a manufacturer’s website before you throw anything away,” Cutchins said. “Look at the lot number, that lot number will be important, and do that before you throw anything away.”

Soon, Cutchins said, insurance companies will be required to cover the cost of at-home tests.

For Alaskans hoping to use an at-home test to travel, Dr. Louisa Castrodale with the state’s division of epidemiology says many of the varieties available include a telehealth component in which a medical professional verifies the patient’s identity and observes them conducting the test. Some of these types of tests are reported to the state, and will work for those needing verification of a test for travel or other purposes. Do-it-yourself at-home tests will not be reported to the state.

”There’s a recommendation to connect with your health care provider if you do have a positive, or your school to connect with them about the next steps that need to be taken,” Castrodale said.

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