Drive-through coronavirus testing to start in Anchorage

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, left, says Anchorage must take action and be self-reliant to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Lisa Holton was one of the sign-language interpreters for the March 16 presentation. (Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage-area hospitals are collaborating to establish a drive-through to test people for COVID-19.

Providence Alaska’s chief medical officer, Michael Bernstein, said the facility will be on Lake Otis Parkway, near 42nd Avenue, and is expected to open Tuesday.

“People can actually stay within their car and a clinician who will be in protective gear will just go to the window and take a sample and then they can drive off,” Bernstein said.

In other cities and countries, drive-through sample collection has helped health care systems test a lot of people quickly, with less risk to clinicians and other patients. Alaska still has a limited number of tests, but state officials say the number is growing, and the testing criteria are expanding.

Related: Hard to keep up with the news? Here’s our compiled coronavirus coverage.

Dr. Bernstein said the drive-through is intended for people with mild symptoms and they must have a referral from their health care provider or an urgent care clinic.

Bernstein spoke Monday night at Alaska Public Media, during a presentation by city leaders and medical authorities.

While it was underway, officials in Fairbanks announced that two men there had tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the known case count in Alaska to three. The men are unrelated, but both had traveled recently in the Lower 48, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

More than 300 samples from Alaska have tested negative, the state reported, as of Monday evening.

Related: Anchorage suspends restaurant dining, bar service

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said at the Alaska Public Media forum that the city’s distance from other large population centers makes it especially important to adopt active measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s not as if we can drive over to the next state and pick up an extra supply of ventilators,” Berkowitz said.

He and other presenters talked about the need to “flatten the curve” so that everyone doesn’t get sick at the same time and exceed the carrying capacity of the local health care system.

City Manager Bill Falsey likened it to the Anchorage Fire Department. The department responds to 800 fires a year, he said, but it can’t respond to 800 fires at once.

Monday, Berkowitz closed restaurants and bars to on-site eating and drinking, and he banned gatherings of more than 50 people. He said he knows the decision is economically damaging.

“It is unfair that the immediate economic cost of this situation, that the closures that I ordered, is going to be felt disproportionately by people who are, in many ways, least able to absorb it,” Berkowitz said. “I am incredibly aware of that. And it is something that we are working tirelessly to solve.”

Berkowitz said he’s asking the state to speed up unemployment benefits. And he wants the federal government to provide stimulus money for local businesses that are hurt because it’s unsafe for the public to congregate.