Medical Assistant Louis Hubbard administers a COVID-19 test to Rick Dealba on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 at Capstone Clinic in Kenai. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)

Medical Assistant Louis Hubbard administers a COVID-19 test to Rick Dealba on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 at Capstone Clinic in Kenai. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)

‘Aggressively buying more rapid testing materials’

Public health officials work to stay ahead of testing need

As COVID-19 cases have surged across the state, Alaska has also seen an increase in the number of tests administered.

As of Friday, approximately 2.9 million tests had been administered in Alaska since the state began tracking the virus in March 2020, with 44,219 tests conducted statewide in the previous seven days, according to Friday’s daily summary from the Department of Health and Social Services.

In August, the number of daily tests eclipsed the number of daily tests given during the previous peak of the pandemic. According to state data, the number of tests conducted daily hit a high of more than 13,700 at the end of November 2020. On Aug. 30, the state conducted more than 14,800 tests.

On the Kenai Peninsula, the number of tests administered in one day hit 1,200 on Aug. 23 — the largest number of tests given since the beginning of the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic in November 2020, the number of tests administered on the peninsula peaked at around 800.

During a press briefing Thursday, Dr. Coleman Cutchins — a clinical pharmacist with the state — said the U.S. has been running low on tests but the state has been working to make sure there wasn’t a shortage in Alaska.

“Around the country testing supplies are becoming scarce,” he said. “We are as a state aggressively buying more rapid testing materials.”

He said the state is waiting for an inbound order of about 300,000 rapid antigen tests to come in.

“You know, we were cutting it close but I think we’re going to be OK,” Cutchins said.

Not only has the volume of testing increased, but statewide positivity rates have climbed in recent weeks. As of Friday, the seven-day rolling test positivity rate was 9.58% statewide, meaning about one in every 10 COVID tests given has been positive this last week.

This surpasses the state’s previous test positivity peak on Nov. 17 of last year, which was 9.31%.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Thursday that the state data isn’t an exact indicator of how much COVID is spreading in Alaska. Limitations include different timelines for symptom onset, testing, turnaround periods and the report date.

“That is ‘backlog,’ because it took awhile for that test to run and then be reported,” she said.

Tami Marsters, a nurse with Kenai Public Health, said people have been testing for a variety of different reasons recently — including for work and school, to travel and if they’re symptomatic.

She said Public Health hasn’t experienced a testing material shortage.

“We are stocked … but it can take anywhere between two to five days (to get results),” Marsters said.

But, she said the current COVID surge makes her nervous for the future.

“We just seem to be ratcheting up,” Marsters said.

Brent Ursel, the physician’s assistant at Glacier Family Medicine Clinic in Seward, said the practice has been administering more COVID tests lately.

“For the most part, we’re seeing more people get tested,” he said.

The average number of daily tests he has administered has hovered around eight, Ursel said, but recently he’s administered as many as 14 in one day.

He said many people have been requesting rapid antigen tests to get same-day results, which has caused some material shortages in the past.

Ursel said the clinic might be a little short on tests in the next order. Glacier has been going through about 200 test kits every six days, he said, and their next shipment contains 60.

“So that’s going to be a little problematic and slow things down,” he said.

What Ursel said was particularly worrisome to him is the state’s access to monoclonal antibody COVID treatment.

He said it was “scary” that only 530 doses of monoclonal antibodies were allocated for the whole state of Alaska this week. Ursel said divided up by borough, the doses will be scarce.

“It’s not very much,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that monoclonal antibody therapeutics would be distributed based on need and availability, according to the HHS website, with Alaska receiving 530 for the week of Sept. 13.

Health officials widely agree that the COVID vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration are the single best way Alaskans can minimize the risk of the virus on their lives.

Ursel said some of his patients’ reasons for refusing the vaccines have exhausted him.

“I’m just tired of hearing them,” he said.

But, Ursel said, he hopes people are still getting their shots.

“It’s not too late to get the vaccine for those who want it,” he said.

Craig Ambrosiani, the executive director of the Seward Community Health Center, said the clinic is still stocked with materials, but more people are coming through to get tested.

He said the staff usually tests between 10 and 20 people in their Tuesday and Thursday one-hour drive-thru clinic, but recently they hit 50 in a single day.

And COVID spread, Ambrosiani said, “doesn’t look like it’s going to stop.”

Capstone Clinic in Kenai also experienced a testing volume increase earlier this month.

Site Manager Nathan Strieby said that after Labor Day weekend cars were backed up through the Three Bears Grocery parking lot and down Walker Street. Some people that day waited upward of four hours to get tested, he said.

On Friday, Strieby said testing materials were still in good supply at the clinic, although a lot more people have been requesting rapid antigen tests. To ensure there are enough for people who are already sick, he said, Capstone is trying to restrict their use by asymptomatic individuals.

Zink emphasized the importance of testing during Thursday’s press briefing so health officials can have a better idea of how much COVID is circulating.

“This really is going to take all of us to be able to turn the tide on COVID-19 and slow the spread overall,” she said. “So again, please get tested at the beginning of any symptoms.”

She also emphasized the important role vaccination plays in keeping the virus at bay.

“We as Alaskans know what bad weather looks like,” Zink said. “Think of this like a COVID storm. … We need to bundle up. We need to put on our mask. We need to get vaccinated. We need to keep our distance — just like in a bad storm. The difference here is that we help to control this weather.”

Testing locations

Officials encourage anyone with symptoms to test for COVID-19, despite vaccination status.

In Kenai, testing is available at the Chignik Lagoon Clinic, Odyssey Family Practice, Kenai Public Health Center and Capstone Clinic.

In Soldotna, testing is available at the Peninsula Community Health Center, Urgent Care of Soldotna, Walgreens and Soldotna Professional Pharmacy.

In Seward, testing is available at Providence Medical Center, Chugachmiut-North Star Health Clinic, Glacier Family Medicine, Seward Community Health Center and the Safeway pharmacy. Starting Sept. 14, the Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

In Homer, testing is available at South Peninsula Hospital, or through other area health care providers at Seldovia Village Tribe Health and Wellness, Kachemak Medical Group and Homer Medical Center.

Reach reporter Camille Botello at camille.botello@peninsulaclarion.com.

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