As test demand increases, Northwest Alaska officials say their supply can’t keep up

Maniilaq Health Center (Wesley Early/KOTZ)

When you fly into Kotzebue, you’re going to run into a nurse from Maniilaq, the local health care provider.

“Our public health nursing has been diligently meeting each Alaska Airlines jet as it comes into Kotzebue,” said Maniilaq President and CEO Tim Gilbert.

Gilbert says upon arrival, nurses greet passengers with a travel questionnaire and request that they get tested for COVID-19 with what’s called a rapid test. As its name suggests, the results of those tests come back fairly quickly, and can be processed in Kotzebue at the Maniilaq Health Center. Maniilaq has other testing kits, but those require sending out samples to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, and it can take three days to get a response back. 

Currently, there have been two cases of COVID-19 in the Maniilaq service area.

Last month, a resident from Kivalina in the Northwest Arctic Borough tested positive for COVID-19 in Anchorage. In response, Maniilaq Association sent nine workers to the village, performing tests on more than 300 residents who may have had contact with the affected individual. 

Nobody else tested positive in Kivalina, and the original individual tested negative after follow-up tests.

While Maniilaq has been able to limit the spread, the incident in Kivalina highlights an increased demand for testing in the Maniilaq service area. Some officials are concerned that demand for testing will only get bigger in the coming months.

“There’s only one Alaska Airlines flight coming in now, but they’ll be moving to two flights by July 1,” said Maniilaq Vice President of Health Services Sharon Kurz.

Additionally, Maniilaq is conducting tests at smaller village airports, assisting with testing of workers at Red Dog Mine and they’re preparing to do more mass testing in villages, like the case in Kivalina. In that situation, Maniilaq did not have enough rapid tests, and instead had to send samples to ANMC. 

Maniilaq officials say all that testing is putting a major strain on their testing supplies. In a news release, officials say that if Maniilaq isn’t able to get more testing kits and workers, “we will fall short of the testing needed to assess and contain COVID-19 in the region.”

Requests for comment from Maniilaq on how they hope to increase their testing supply went unanswered as of this report.

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Wesley is a reporter for Alaska Public Media, covering primarily city government and Anchorage life. He previously worked at Alaska Public Media as a web editor, producer and education reporter before a two-year stint in Kotzebue, AK as News Director for KOTZ-AM.

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