With testing cutbacks, Alaska is flying blind into omicron

"Pea Soup" weather conditions in Southeast Alaska. (Photo by JLS Photography - Alaska/Flickr Creative Commons)

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Smart pilots never fly test planes is more or less what a smug, recently elected Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said when he was explaining why he wouldn’t be getting vaccinated against covid-19. Not only was it an odd metaphor given that someone has to fly a plane for the first time, but it was just one of many signals he’s given in support of anti-vaxxers and vaccine skeptics. If a pilot wouldn’t fly an “experimental jab,” then why should I?

Since taking office, Bronson’s administration has continued to sow doubt about the efficacy of vaccines, taking center stage at a conference where the main thrust seemed to be that covid is a bioweapon, riling up a crowd of anti-mask protestors and endorsing their use of Holocaust imagery and, most recently, pulling the plug on city-backed drive-through testing.

In early December, the city quietly and abruptly ended its contract to provide drive-through tests at many locations throughout the city. While the move seemed to catch everyone by surprise with many people showing up to the popular Loussac Library testing location to find an empty parking lot, the Capstone Clinic apparently got the message with enough time to swoop in and take over. But convenient coincidence aside, even the Capstone management acknowledged that turning everything over to the free market came with risks.

“There is no contract, oversight, or partnership with the Municipality and Capstone,” Capstone manager Matt Jones told the Anchorage Daily News at the time. “There’s obviously a point where the testing numbers drop off to the point where it no longer becomes profitable. … With a contract you can always have the money coming in whether the testing is happening or not. With (a private operator) it is a little more of a risk.”

And that risk is coming to roost as the highly infectious strain of covid-19 is starting to make its presence felt in Alaska.

According to the state’s Monday release of covid-19 data, the state reported a 262% increase in cases with 3,689 new cases reported from a period running from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2. Hospitalizations and, importantly, ventilator capacity haven’t seen a corresponding jump, which seems to comport with the reports of it not being nearly as severe as the previous strains (so it’s not all bad news). The positivity rate—the rate at which tests are coming back positive—hit its highest of the entire pandemic with 12.8%. With the release of numbers today, that positivity rate climbed to 14.67% with 12 new hospitalizations and six more people on ventilators.

One of the most important trends that stands out in the latest wave of cases is that testing is down to just a fraction of where it was during the height of the delta-driven surge. On busiest day I could find from the delta surge, the state reported more than 15,300 tests while the highest day in the last week was just north of 5,500… and that was before the last weekend’s wild weather hit. None of these figures include at-home tests, which while useful are not widely available and are not as widely accepted as proof of a negative test. When it comes to a positivity rate, experts have warned that anything above 5% indicates a need for more testing. We’re now nearly triple that.

The cumulative tests (blue=negative, red=positive) from March 2021 through January 2022.

Instead, this week kicked off with people heading to social media in search of an operating testing site, complaining about the stark lack of notification that testing throughout the city would be interrupted. It was felt particularly strongly in Anchorage, where Capstone Clinic left several testing sites either unstaffed or severely understaffed with its management explaining that the truly terrible valley weather made travel treacherous for their employees.

The company has since pledged to be better about communicating with the city and the public, but at the end of the day it’s still a private company with zero obligation to the city to provide these services other. The weather was the problem this time, but they could just as easily decide that testing is no longer profitable and pull up stakes overnight. The only widely available, publicly supported testing in the Anchorage area is at the UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center where Capstone has a contract with the state.

For the next week or two, Capstone is recommending people expect a one- to two-hour wait.

The Bronson administration was largely mum on the situation, only in the afternoon on Monday issuing a series of tweets that directed people to getting at-home tests (but didn’t say where they could get the free tests from the municipality, noting that the tests were stored for some reason in the Mat-Su Valley) and “please check with them” when it comes to other testing sites. Anchorage Health Director Joe Gerace has since released a stilted video that offers little clarity on the testing situation but to explain that the city’s testing director can’t be trusted to be accurate.

“The website does not have the ability to list special one-off daily schedules for weather delays, holidays or staffing issues. I can share with you that all of the testing vendors are facing the same hiring struggles that other businesses are facing,” he said, later adding, “The current covid testing in the city of Anchorage is really in a better place than it was two months ago.”

For a mayor who’s loved to apply flying metaphors to the pandemic, the moves and decisions by the Bronson has the city effectively flying blind into an unknown storm.

The situation has once again brought up comments Bronson made to the administration while on the campaign trail for the mayor’s office where he complained that the city’s efforts to ramp up testing were resulting in more cases.

“As Anchorage’s formerly first-rate covid testing system falls apart under new leadership, I’m reminded of a stament made by our mayor in Sept. 2020: ‘I know how to end this epidemic…stop testing and we won’t have any more cases,'” Anchorage Assemblymember Austin Quinn-Davidson wrote on Twitter. “Finally, a campaign promise kept.”

In the big picture: All of this comes in a shifting focus in how the state reports numbers—late last year, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said the state was no longer interested in “documenting this pandemic”—that has seen the reported case counts go from daily, to three times a week to, now, once a week. While that move isn’t entirely out of line with most national experts urging us to put more focus on hospitalization numbers than raw case counts, it’s hard to overlook what’s going on with testing and it’s what feels like is yet another abrupt change in direction from public health officials that hasn’t been well-explained or well-justified to the public.

Widespread testing—whether it’s the drive-up tests or the at-home tests—are a critical tool that individuals can use to protect themselves and their circles. Public health officials are advising that people consider getting tested before and after travel as well as attending big gatherings. That was a relatively realistic request when drive-up testing was widely available or when at-home tests could be easily picked up at Walgreens, but the lines are getting longer with the dwindling number of drive-up sites and at-home tests are becoming increasingly hard to come by.

We, too, are flying blind.

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1 Comment on "With testing cutbacks, Alaska is flying blind into omicron"

  1. Nunya Bidness | January 5, 2022 at 7:53 pm | Reply

    The state SHOULD be VERY interested in documenting this pandemic! That’s because that data can help in actually PLANNING A PROGRAM for future detection, testing, and procedures, based on the success or lack of success of what was done over the past 2 years. Everyone that manages health care needs that data, but politicians hate it because it often shows how disastrously the State responded.

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