Your questions about COVID-19 testing, answered

Dr. Elizabeth Bates does a run-through with a Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. employee at a COVID-19 drive-thru test site in Bethel on March 25, 2020. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

There’s a lot to keep track of when it comes to COVID-19 and Alaska’s response to the pandemic. Reporters all over the state are talking to experts and local Alaskans every day about the impact the virus is having on our lives. And still, there are questions. Lots and lots of unanswered questions.

This post answers questions about testing for COVID-19. Rashah McChesney provided the reporting.

Q: How many COVID-19 tests are done on a daily basis? Who keeps and reports that? — Doug Mecum, Juneau

There is not a set number of tests that get done on a daily basis. There are tests being performed by commercial labs, the Alaska State Public Health Labs and hospital facility labs. Each doctor’s office, hospital, clinic and municipality is deciding who gets tested and when. Then when the lab gets those samples they perform the test and then send the data to the state.

The state Department of Health and Social Services gets that testing data and reports it on a COVID-19 case dashboard they update every day. As of the last update on May 25, 44,964 tests had been performed in the state. Generally, they report where the sample was taken — and what kind of lab tested it. It’s important to remember that some people get tested more than once — so that figure isn’t reflective of the number of people in the state who have gotten a test for the virus.

Screenshot from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services COVID-19 dashboard, taken on May 26, 2020. (Data from https://coronavirus-response-alaska-dhss.hub.arcgis.com/)

Q: How long does it take to get results? — David Quisenberry, Juneau

There’s pretty wide variability here. Sometimes it’s dependent on the lab that does the test; sometimes it’s dependent on the type of machine used to process the sample. There are some machines, like the ABBOTT ID Now, that take as little as 15 minutes to return results, though there’s some data that shows those results can be less accurate than others. Some take several hours to return results. And, if a sample gets sent out of state, that can take days to return. Early on people were being told that it could take a week to get their results back. Now, it seems to take a few days.

Q: How much does getting tested cost?

It depends. There are free drive- up testing sites in some places in AnchorageKetchikan, Juneau, Fairbanks and Bethel. But that’s for people who have symptoms and are referred by a medical provider. There are people who want to be tested, but don’t meet the criteria. They’ve paid several hundred dollars out-of-pocket for tests. People without insurance have reported paying several hundred dollars as well. At least one dentist’s office in Juneau is asking people to take a $50 COVID-19 test before they can be treated.

But for people who do have insurance? It’s likely free. Alaska’s Division of Insurance has barred companies it regulates from charging for COVID-19 related testing — if it’s medically necessary. It’s also asking them to waive the office visit fee as well. At least two of the state’s insurers Premera and Moda are following that guidance.

Send us your questions — big and small, serious and trivial — about the pandemic in Alaska and we’ll send a reporter or expert out to find the answer. Here’s the number: 907-586-1600 to leave a recorded question. Or email us at coronavirus@alaskapublic.org.