Medical supply donations have kept testing going in Anchorage – but for how much longer?

COVID-19 diagnostic panel (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Last week, as increased testing for the novel coronavirus started to stress the city’s test swab supply, Anchorage put out a call for donations in order to keep its mobile testing lab running.

The call-out worked. At least for now.

“Thanks to everybody who sent them, that was wonderful,” said Misty Thanavel, Patient Service Center Lab at Providence Hospital.

As of Monday afternoon, individuals and businesses had donated 600 nasal swabs to the testing clinic. That allowed the center to operate at full capacity through the weekend and should last through the end of this week, according to Thanavel. 

Now, a bigger limiting factor will be the quantity of viral transport media specimens, another essential piece of equipment for testing. Often, the swabs come with the viral transport media – a fluid at the bottom of a test tube that helps preserve the virus – but not always. So far, the center has received about 70 donations of the media specimen, but are looking for more to keep them going past this week.

And while testing is still among the top priorities for health officials during the early stages of the epidemic in the state, they’re also preparing for a future when the virus has infected more people in the community and the priority shifts to treatment. In anticipation of that, Anchorage’s Emergency Operations Center sent out a call last week for PPE – or personal protective equipment. That means things like sterile gloves, gowns, and face masks.

Audrey Gray of the Emergency Operations Center said that Alaska is at an advantage in that it can see how other places have been coping with the disease and the supply shortages resulting from it. Anchorage isn’t experiencing a shortage, she says, but gathering donations now is essential. 

“The reason that we are taking those donations is because we anticipate that we might end up in a PPE shortage and we just wanna make sure that we’re prepared for that,” she said. 

So far over fifty people or businesses have donated, but even with the advanced preparation, the city is looking at worst-case scenarios, such as running out of sterile, new supplies. That’s why they’re even allowing for equipment that is substandard.

“We’d really like to encourage people to continue to donate PPE. We don’t care if it’s expired, we don’t care if it’s open. We just want to make sure that we have enough if that need occurs,” she says. 

If the city gets to that point, Gray says the Emergency Operations Center will have those supplies – in whatever conditions they may be – ready to give to hospitals, who will then have to make an unenviable choice.

“That would be a very bad case scenario that we say – ‘okay hospitals, this is what we have currently is all expired or it is potentially open, is this something that you would want?’ and then let the hospitals make that decision,” she said. 

Currently, the city is not accepting homemade masks, though that might change in the coming days with new guidance from the State Department of Health and Social Services. Homemade masks, in any case, would not be distributed to medical professionals but to patients waiting to be tested, according to Gray. 

According to the CDC, homemade masks are “not considered PPE” and should only be used as a “last resort.” Unlike properly-fitting N-95 masks, which block out 95% of particles under .03 microns, homemade fabric masks only offer protection from large-particle droplets, according to the FDA. 

Medical and city officials both say that so far, the response from Anchorage residents has been encouraging and that they’ve seen donations from all quarters. Thanavel said that the mobile lab has received donations from the several doctors’ offices around town, USGS’s Alaska Science Center, and a box of 500 swabs from UAA. And they’re also coming from more unexpected places. 

“We had some from a wildlife rescue group who uses the same swabs and they said, ‘hey can we donate some.”’ said Gray, “I was like, ‘oh wow, I never would have thought of that.’ So they’re around. It’s been amazing to see where they’re coming from.”

The city is collecting donations of Personal Protective Equipment at Crossfit Alaska at 9191 Old Seward Highway. Testing swabs and viral transport media specimens can be donated to the mobile testing at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and East 42nd Avenue.