Officials are tightening up some COVID-19 travel requirements as the omicron variant of the coronavirus makes its way through the United States.
In a press briefing Thursday, state health officials emphasized the importance of vaccination, especially since there are many epidemiologic unknowns about omicron. Some of these unknowns, they said, have prompted government-imposed travel restrictions.
“Early next week, inbound international travelers to the U.S. will be required to provide negative results taken within 24 hours of departure,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said Thursday.
In accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all travelers — regardless of vaccination status — should test before and after their trips, she said. Unvaccinated travelers should also self isolate for seven days upon arrival to their destination, until they test negative.
“Again, using (mitigation) as a way to slow this spread … we can continue to get people vaccinated … protected, and learn more about this variant moving on,” she said.
As of approximately 5 p.m. Saturday, The New York Times had reported known cases of the omicron variant in 15 states: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
First detected by scientists in South Africa, the omicron strain was deemed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26 because of its vast genetic mutations. Zink said Thursday that it’s still unclear if the omicron strain is more dangerous than other COVID variants.
“We are still just getting beginning information from South Africa,” she said. “We are seeing some early clinician reports of very mild symptoms but we don’t know … their risk factors.”
The United States government had also barred travel to and from eight countries in southern Africa by Saturday, the Times reported. Restricted countries included Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini, Lesotho and South Africa.
Additionally, Israel, Morocco and Japan had banned all foreign travelers.
Masks are still federally mandated for travel through airports and on airplanes, whether or not local governments mandate the use of facial coverings in public. This includes travel through the Kenai Municipal Airport.
Masks are also required to ride most public transportation.
COVID tests — including take-home test kits — are available for travelers at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport behind the security checkpoint.
The testing site was formerly in front of security, but, Zink said, it was moved to encourage more symptomatic people to get tested at a community clinic and avoid a potential “super-spreading event” at the airport.
Health officials said Thursday that emerging variants are to be expected as long as people in the community and other parts of the world remain unvaccinated. They encouraged everyone to get their primary series or booster shot as soon as possible.
As of Friday, 56% of Alaskans 5 and older were fully vaccinated, and another 61% had received at least one dose. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, 47% of people 5 and older were fully vaccinated and 51% had taken at least one shot.
Zink said the tools already at the community’s disposal — including vaccination, distancing, masking and ventilation — are still likely to “work very well” against the omicron strain.
“We … know the tools that we have against this variant,” she said. “We don’t suspect any significant changes in those.”
The state Department of Health and Social Services reported 316 new COVID cases Friday.
Cases and hospitalizations have been trending downward statewide, but Alaska remained at a high COVID transmission alert level Friday — with an estimated rolling average of 258.2 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.
The new case count included seven in Kenai, three each in the Kenai Peninsula Borough South, Soldotna and Sterling, and one in both Homer and Seward. Statewide there were 75 COVID-related hospitalizations as of Friday, with 10 patients on ventilators.
Getting a vaccine
COVID-19 vaccines do not cost money.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for everyone 5 years and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccines are approved for anyone 18 and older.
Pfizer and Moderna boosters and additional doses are also recommended for anyone 18 and older and six months out from their second dose. The J&J booster is recommended two months after the primary dose.
Many different organizations on the central peninsula, including Walmart, Walgreens, the Kenai Fire Department and Kenai Public Health, offer vaccines. They are also available for both residents and visitors at airports in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.
Additionally, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy hosts a walk-in clinic in its strip mall storefront at the “Y” intersection of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways. The clinic has extended its hours to Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Vaccination appointments can also be scheduled through the online portal PrepMod, which can be accessed at myhealth.alaska.gov.
A map of vaccine providers can be found on DHSS’ COVID-19 vaccine website at covidvax.alaska.gov.
People who would like assistance scheduling a vaccination appointment can call the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management call center. The center operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon. The central peninsula call center can be reached at 907-262-4636. The Homer call center can be reached at 907-235-4636. The Seward call center can be reached at 907-224-4636.
COVID 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. The Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-thru testing Tuesdays only.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.