As Alaska experiences its latest surge in cases of COVID-19, testing facilities on the Kenai Peninsula are starting to feel the dual pressure of an increased demand for tests and an increased delay in results. The cost and availability of a COVID test depends primarily on the testing location, while the wait time for results depends on where the tests are processed and the current infection rate for the area, according to four local health care providers who spoke with the Clarion over the last week.
Justin Ruffridge, owner of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy and member of the Soldotna City Council, told the Clarion on Oct. 21 that his pharmacy is typically able to schedule COVID tests on the same day that they’re requested, but the number of requests has increased. Tests at SPP cost $75, and the pharmacy offers both rapid tests and the standard PCR tests.
SPP has a rapid-test machine on-site that provides results in about 15 minutes, but those tests are only used on symptomatic patients. If a person is requesting a test because they are a close contact of someone with COVID, they are given a PCR test, which is analyzed at the State Lab in Anchorage and which Ruffridge says takes about two to four days to produce results.
Ruffridge said last week that in the two weeks prior he had noted an increase of both symptomatic patients and positive cases, as well as people who are requesting a test after being identified as a close contact.
“A big part of our time has been spent educating people on what exactly that quarantine process means,” Ruffridge said. “The assumption that’s out there is that people can test out of quarantine, which is just not the case.”
Ruffridge said that the 14 days of quarantine is mandatory because that has been determined as the window in which symptoms can appear after being exposed. The only way to ensure that the close contact doesn’t unknowingly spread the disease further is to have that person quarantine for the full 14 days.
“It’s terrible, people have to work and go to school, and it interrupts people’s routines,” Ruffridge said. “But our president is a great example of why testing isn’t a substitute for quarantining. He got tested every single day, was negative one day and positive the next.”
Rob McRorie, owner of K-Beach Medical, charges his patients $50 for a PCR test. He said people can call from the parking lot to get tested. During an Oct. 20 interview, McRorie said that his clinic primarily provides tests for people who are symptomatic and those who have been identified as close contacts, with a few exceptions. McRorie had also seen an increase in the amount of testing at his clinic, and he said that the number of tests they conduct each day had doubled in the two weeks prior.
McRorie said that he has noticed many people in recent weeks have expressed their desire to get tested for peace of mind, but they don’t show symptoms and haven’t been identified as a close contact. McRorie urged against testing outside of those two categories, saying that the priority should be on identifying those who are already sick.
“If you weren’t exposed, and you don’t have symptoms, you probably don’t need to get tested,” McRorie said.
McRorie said that the average turnaround for the tests conducted at K-Beach tends to be about 48 hours, but in times of spiking cases, that delay can increase to 72 or even 96 hours as labs get backed up with an excess of COVID tests.
At Central Peninsula Hospital and its Urgent Care clinics in Kenai and Soldotna, tests cost $100 each and are either processed in-house or in Anchorage, depending on the nature of the test. Bruce Richards, public information officer for CPH, said anyone being admitted to the hospital has their test processed in-house in about 45 minutes. Tests given to patients going in for surgery and doctor-ordered tests are processed at the state lab in Anchorage.
Richards said last week that for the last few months, CPH has had difficulties keeping adequate supplies of the testing reagents for their in-house Cepheid machine. In August the hospital received a shipment of only five reagent cartridges, and as of last week the hospital had about a month’s worth of testing reagents with no refill in sight, because the hospital was told that they would have to start purchasing the reagents directly from Cepheid rather than through the Department of Health and Social Services.
That situation changed, however, when Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Wednesday that DHSS was implementing several measures to increase the supplies of testing materials and personal protective equipment available to health care providers. During an interview Thursday, Richards said that when heard from DHSS about this supply boost, he immediately had his team place an order for more of the cepheid reagents and other supplies, including 46,000 of the 3.5 million gloves that the state has made available as of Wednesday.
“I got an email saying they had about 19,000 tests available,” Richards said Thursday. “So they will run out. It’s not a never-ending supply. But it’s still good news.”
The positivity rate for tests conducted on the Kenai Peninsula and processed in the last seven days is 12.95%, the highest it has been since March when the state began tracking the pandemic. Richards said on Thursday that he is worried about what the high percentage in positive cases now will mean for health care capacity down the road.
“Obviously we’re in a spike right now, and there’s a bit of a lagging indicator between when people test positive and when they actually start to get sick,” Richards said. “So what I wonder is, what are things going to look like in two weeks?”
For people who cannot afford the COVID-19 tests offered at other facilities, the Kenai Public Health office offers tests at no charge but on a limited basis — only administering between two to fine tests a day, according to Public Health Nurse Amanda McKinley.
In an Oct. 22 interview, McKinley said that, in addition to providing testing, Kenai Public Health fields a lot of questions from residents who are concerned about whether they might be positive for COVID, and what they should do.
“Most people want to get the rapid test,” McKinley said. “They want to know right away so they can go back to work or their kids can get back to school. So we talk it through with every patient over the phone and figure out which testing provider can meet their needs and their situation.”
McKinley, who also conducts contact tracing along with other Public Health Nurses, last week expressed her concern over the recent rise in cases locally, and said that people should be especially cautious about their social interactions right now.
“It’s definitely widespread,” McKinley said, when asked what advice she had for peninsula residents. “Any exposure is a risk, and now is not the best time to be going to community events or things of that nature.”
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at firstname.lastname@example.org.