Alaskans experience problems with COVID test orders, few answers coming from government

Rural P.O. boxes, multifamily complexes and freezing temperatures among uncertainties as federal test program rolls out
Published: Jan. 19, 2022 at 5:48 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When some rural Alaskans logged in to to order their four free at-home COVID-19 tests Tuesday, they were surprised to find that their address showed up as “not valid.”

The U.S. Postal Service, which is running the delivery for the federal program, says only residential addresses and residential P.O. boxes will be valid for the deliveries. But Dawn Newman, in Rampart on the Yukon River in Interior Alaska, says she and her sister entered their post office box number and received an error message that said the address could not be validated. She says none of the PO box addresses in Rampart worked — the community does not have street addresses — and addresses used for other types of mail did not work on the site.

The inability to order tests, and concerns about whether or not tests will freeze while being shipped, may have Alaskans feeling a little out in the cold on the home deliveries.

“We were reassured yesterday by the federal government that the (tests) that they’re sending out should not freeze and they should be ok for shipment, but we are looking into details on that,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said in a video conference Wednesday. “We’re also hearing reports of challenges being sent to P.O. boxes and we know many Alaskans don’t either have a zip code or a specific address to ship to, which is challenging.”

“We have been raising this for some time, we sent another email today and this morning,” Zink continued, saying the state health department is hoping for more direct answers soon.

Alaska’s News Source reached out to the U.S. Postal Service about both the address and freezing issues and were referred to a nationwide spokesperson who did not respond Wednesday.

Dr. Coleman Cutchins, Alaska’s state testing coordinator, says there are calls planned for Thursday with the federal government to shake out more details on those address problems, temperature concerns and the next step in a program that would mass-ship at-home COVID-19 tests to community health centers and federally qualified health centers. When the tests are shipped in bulk, they can be temperature controlled.

“More than half of our country is currently below freezing temperatures. Obviously we get some pretty severe below freezing temperatures here,” Cutchins said Wednesday. “We have been told they’re going to figure it out, it may be that these tests will go to a central location for distribution.”

Despite the concern for freezing tests, Cutchins suggested people still place their order if they’d like to have a test on hand in the future.

“I think some of the details will be worked out moving forward,” he said. Also, in case of spoilage, most of the tests available have an indicator that a test has failed to procure a result.

The tests aren’t scheduled to be shipped until later this month, giving some time for that to sort out, he said.

Meanwhile, Alaska’s congressional delegation are concerned. Alaska’s News Source spoke with Sen. Dan Sullivan Wednesday, who said access for rural Alaska have been a concern since the start of the pandemic.

“This is not something that people should be having to deal with this late in the pandemic,” Sullivan said.

He said Congress’ billions of dollars of appropriations toward testing should have solved these issues before they became a problem.

Rep. Don Young sent a letter to Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, pressing for answers to questions about the difficulties ordering tests to rural P.O. boxes, apartment complexes and the concern over freezing.

“Since the pandemic began, I have voted in support of billions in appropriations funding to expand our nation’s testing capacity and ensure that tests are available for those who need them,” the letter reads in part. “Unfortunately, this week’s federal test kit rollout has fallen far short of the distinctive challenges of Alaskans.”

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