The demand for COVID-19 testing has risen dramatically on the peninsula since the beginning of the summer as a surge of delta variant cases is reported across the state.
On June 26 there were 66 COVID tests administered in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, an all-time summer low. About two months later on Aug. 23, however, the borough administered a record high number of tests for the summer: 1,100.
The line of cars waiting at Capstone Clinic on Monday stretched through the Three Bears grocery parking lot, as dozens of people waited to get tested. Soldotna Professional Pharmacy is as busy as it’s ever been, Justin Ruffridge, the owner and a pharmacist, said.
Statewide, the number of tests being conducted has also grown. Through the week of July 5, about 15,400 COVID tests were taken and an average of 2.5% came back positive. For the week of Aug. 24 just over 44,800 COVID tests were administered in Alaska and the state reported a positivity rate of 7.56%, according to state data on Tuesday.
In Wednesday’s public science information session, officials at the state Department of Health and Human Services said there are many reasons for the increase in testing volume.
“The long lines are really a result of a few things,” Dr. Coleman Cutchins, a clinical pharmacist with the state, said. “A large surge, but also people that are unvaccinated that are being required to test instead of being vaccinated. Those are kind of the compounding things that are really affecting our lines.”
Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, said during the session Wednesday that a month and a half ago the state was processing 4,000 to 5,000 COVID tests per day. This week, she said, there are an average of 12,000 to 13,000 daily.
“In addition to Alaskans, you know, we’re having a bunch of people move in and about the state,” she said. “So it’s not necessarily just sort of that same finite population.”
Ruffridge said Wednesday his pharmacy doesn’t have the same capacity as other clinics trying to grapple with the new testing demands.
“We’re almost a full 24-hour wait to get tested,” he said. “This is probably the most widely varied testing situation that we’ve ever seen.”
Ruffridge said his staff used to come in early, stay late and work weekends to test during last winter’s huge surge, but they can’t afford to do the same this time around.
“We just all felt like … we’re going to get burned out,” he said.
Bruce Richards, the external affairs director of Central Peninsula Hospital and Urgent Care, said Tuesday the hospital has done more testing in recent weeks.
“It certainly has picked up during the spike,” he said, noting that patients get tested not just if they’re symptomatic but also if they’re being admitted to the hospital for other circumstances.
The hospital and urgent care center are not COVID testing clinics, Richards said, but rather facilities that have tests on hand for people going to see their primary care physicians.
“We’re not really set up to just do testing,” he said. “We test patients that come in because they’re sick.”
Along with the number of tests, the positivity rate is growing across the state.
The state reported another 801 COVID cases and four recent deaths on Wednesday. According to the Sept. 1 genomic surveillance report, 99% of new cases in the week of Aug. 8 were attributed to the delta variant.
State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said Wednesday that health officials aim to keep the positivity rate under 5%.
During the peak of the pandemic last winter — on Nov. 17 — the seven-day rolling state positivity average reached a high of 9.31%. In the summer surge, since July 1, the rate has risen from just 1.41% to where it is now, over 7%.
In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the week of Nov. 17 saw a 14% seven-day rolling positivity rate. Now, the area has almost hit that peak. On Tuesday, the reported positivity rate was 13%, according to state data.
Local health officials and those with the state continue to encourage people to get tested for COVID if they exhibit symptoms, despite vaccination status.
Richards said that’s the only way to know how much of the virus is circulating in the community.
“Testing is one of the canaries in the coal mine,” he said. “It’s the only way to know (if) there’s something still lurking around.”
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 August 17, the Seward Community Health Center is offering drive-through testing Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
In Homer, testing is available at South Peninsula Hospital, or through other area health care providers at Seldovia Village TribeHealth and Wellness, Kachemak Medical Group and Homer Medical Center.
Reach reporter Camille Botello at firstname.lastname@example.org.