Instead of guiding this summer, seasonal workers are helping with COVID-19 testing at Sitka’s airport

Allen Marine employee Tori Shoemaker checks a traveler’s COVID test results on their cell phone at Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. She attends University of Alaska Southeast and normally works as a lifeguard during the summer. (Erin McKinstry/ KCAW)

Airline travelers across Alaska are meeting screeners and lines when they disembark, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s plan to replace mandatory quarantines for out-of-state travelers with on-the-spot testing.

At 11:30 on a Saturday morning, Sitka’s airport is pretty dead. Two Alaska Airlines employees check in a handful of travelers. The only other people in the terminal are 10 Allen Marine employees donning bright orange vests with “screener” written on the back and pulling on surgical masks and purple nitrile gloves.

“I was going to be working on Denali this year as a mountain guide, which is very exciting,” said screener Rob Caldwell. “It was going to be my first season up there. And that got cancelled, so this is temporary.”

With a few exceptions, all travelers coming from out of state have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result in the last 72 hours if they don’t want to quarantine upon arrival. Otherwise, they can take a test at the airport and quarantine until they get their results.

Caldwell’s job is to help travelers who’ve decided to test at the airport. He stands behind a plastic shield and a “Face Masks Required” sign. From there, he hands out forms, checks IDs and sends travelers on to the next screener, who double checks their paperwork.

“The people that are coming in are mostly like super understanding, trying to keep the community safe,” he said. “It is funny though a few people kind of come through, and they either had a bad flight, or they’re just generally kind grumpy, but I’d say that’s definitely the minority.”

Allen Marine normally operates tour boats out of Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. But with tourism numbers way down because of the coronavirus, they’re branching out. The city recommended Allen Marine to the state. And the state then contracted with the company to conduct the new screening policies that went into effect on June 6. A spokesman with Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services said the state encouraged communities to come up with their own strategies for screening.

Allen Marine’s Stefania Potrzuski is the company’s sales and service manager. Now, she’s also their airport screener supervisor.

“We had laid off quite a few employees due to the current situation. And also we are great customer service people because we serve guests almost year-round,” she said.

Potrzuski says the Sitka Fire Department had already set up a screening procedure before Allen Marine got involved, and they’ve been refining the process since. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium trained the employees who are administering tests.

Travelers fill out forms before taking COVID-19 tests at the Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. They’ll self-administer tests with guidance from Allen Marine employees. (Erin McKinstry / KCAW)

As it nears noon, the screeners take their positions. One stands by the door to the tarmac and points arriving travelers to one of two lines: those who need a test and those who don’t.

Travelers who are part of critical infrastructure or who have test results in hand queue in front of a folding table, where two screeners check paperwork and IDs. They hand out stickers that say “I’ve been screened” and vouchers for a follow up test for those who need it. Another stands at the airport exit to make sure no one without a sticker goes in or out.

Allen Marine employee Rebecca Linn is helping people with a “self-swab.” She hands them a long q-tip enclosed in plastic and instructs them to remove the plastic from one end. They are to insert it in their own nose to the “point of resistance” and rotate four times.

The q-tip goes in a vial with a sticker with people’s personal information on it. Results are expected back within five to seven days.

From start to finish, the whole process takes about 20 minutes. Considering how complicated the regulations are, the whole thing goes pretty smoothly. People are directed to where they need to go. The few who look confused are quickly apprehended.

Sitka resident Jennifer Price returned from an 11-day trip to Seattle on the flight. She decided to take a test at the airport.

“I wish more people would wear their masks on the airplane, that’s my one comment,” Price said. “But, yeah, this whole effort has run smoothly.”

She said the test wasn’t a problem.

“It’s nice that I got to stick the swab up by myself using my own hand,” Price said.

Before long, the airport empties, and the clean-up process begins. They’ll do this three times a day, seven days a week until something changes.