Amid national crunch, Alaska’s coronavirus test supply is adequate, officials say

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink gives a status report on the novel coronavirus to legislators at the Terry Miller Building in Juneau on February 4, 2020. Zink was accompanied by Commissioner of Health and Social Services, Adam Crum. They were speaking on behalf of the Governor Mike Dunleavy. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Public health officials moved Friday to calm Alaskans’ anxiety about the availability of coronavirus testing, saying the state has the resources it needs.

“We feel at this time that we’re able to test the people we need to test for,” said Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, in a phone call with reporters. 

But Zink acknowledged that that could change. There’s a national testing crunch right now for the coronavirus as the number of cases rise, with Vice President Mike Pence acknowledging that there aren’t enough to meet demand.

Related: Is your Alaska doctor as worried about coronavirus as you are? Maybe not. 

Frustrated health care professionals and elected officials say the shortage in available testing kits is limiting the country’s ability to contain the disease.

In Alaska, where no cases have been confirmed, Zink downplayed the importance of testing. She said it’s neither a cure nor a shield that will protect against getting the virus later.

“What we’re seeing is people going into clinics and emergency departments demanding it who really are very low risk. People aren’t being so kind to each other,” she said. “I think a lot of that comes from fear and misinformation. And I understand that this is incredibly scary and this can be hard to process all at once. But we really are stronger together and we need to make sure that we leverage our tools where they’re best used.”

Twelve people had tested negative for the virus in Alaska as of Friday, with two additional tests pending, according to state figures. Zink said the state is trying to conduct tests in batches to stretch Alaska’s supply, which she said is enough for 100 to 200 tests. 

Related: Amid coronavirus fears, who decides if a cruise ship can come or not?

The limited supply makes for a give-and-take between the state officials administering the tests and the doctors who think their patients should get one. One recent example of that was a patient who’d traveled to Washington state and later arrived at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center with an unexplained case of pneumonia. 

The center’s chief medical officer, Phillip Mendoza, said that after an initial call to state officials, they made a shared decision not to test the man, because he hadn’t been hospitalized.

That didn’t stop workers at the health center from taking precautions, Mendoza said.

“He called me when he arrived at the parking lot,” Mendoza said. “I met him at the door with a mask, and then he proceeded to his appointment with his provider to get the care he needed. And he’s recovering.”

Mendoza said the limitations on testing are not ideal, but he added that it’s not unusual for the health center to lack all the resources that providers would like to have to care for patients.

Another Anchorage doctor was more frustrated. Pediatrician Michelle Laufer said more testing would help her communicate directly with patients about the threat posed by the coronavirus.

“We can’t know risk and rate if we don’t have an overall prevalence of the disease,” she said. “People being concerned or worried about what’s happening, it’s hard to be reassuring without numbers.”

Zink said the state is trying to balance the urgency to conduct tests against its limited supply. And she discouraged people from going to the hospital to ask for tests, saying they could be exposed to people with illnesses like the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that if you develop symptoms of the coronavirus, including a fever and a cough or difficulty breathing, you should call ahead to a healthcare professional before being seen.