Anchorage’s multi-million-dollar testing, vaccination contracts in limbo as Bronson administration considers its options

Cars in a line with a person in a blue gown talking to someone through the window
Cars waiting in line for city contractor Visit Healthcare to conduct a COVID-19 test at the Loussac Library on Tuesday (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Officials from Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration say they’re examining their options for continuing the city’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs as key contracts are set to expire at the end of the month.

The city’s contractor, Visit Healthcare, operates both testing and vaccination sites, and it’s been paid $29 million since it was hired more than a year ago, according to Bronson’s spokesman.

Now, Bronson’s administration is considering its future with the company, though time is running short for a new contract to be properly noticed and funded by the city Assembly. Officials say that any proposal must appear on the agenda at the Assembly’s regular meeting next week in order to be approved before the end of the month.

Bronson, a conservative, downplayed the coronavirus pandemic during his campaign, has declined to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and recently endorsed unproven treatments like Ivermectin. Several veteran public health officials have also left jobs at the city health department since he was sworn in in July.

Related: Anchorage’s public health division manager resigns

But a spokesman for Bronson, and Anchorage Health Director Joe Gerace, both said this week that city-sponsored coronavirus testing and vaccination will continue in some form after the end of the month. The health department, according to Gerace, has submitted four proposals that Bronson can choose from to submit to the Assembly, which vary in scope and cost.

“We will be in the testing and vaccination business for the foreseeable future,” Gerace said in a phone interview. “I don’t want to cause panic among people that their favorite testing location won’t be around.”

The city-sponsored testing and vaccination program has been a key element of Anchorage’s public health response to the pandemic, with sites at high-traffic spots like the Loussac Library, the Northway Mall and the Dimond Center.

Visit Healthcare’s original testing contract, signed in July 2020, called for the city to pay $98 per sample collected. But the cost was reimbursed by the federal government.

The company, based in Silicon Valley, has also done testing in California, Texas and Illinois. It’s led by Ben Fanger, who previously founded a health care staffing company and owns medical equipment sourcing businesses in China, according to a biography he submitted to the city.

A company official said in an email that Visit Healthcare has no plans to end its work in Anchorage and has tested and vaccinated thousands of people.

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“Visit Healthcare has no intention of discontinuing its contract with the Municipality of Anchorage, nor have we been informed about any plans by the municipality to do so,” said Emily Oestreicher, the company’s chief development officer. “We are proud to have made a significant impact on the safety and well-being of this community.”

Gerace, the city health director, was Visit Healthcare’s operations director before being hired by Bronson’s administration.

City officials, he said, are assessing whether Anchorage’s current testing and vaccination program can be improved by, for example, moving sites to different places. He said it might not make sense to keep operating sites close to others operated by different entities, like the state.

“We’re looking at all those options. We’re looking at having some flex strength, in case we have another uptick,” Gerace said. “We’ve been at the same operation for 15 months. We just want to make that it hasn’t gotten long in the tooth and we could be better serving the community by having different test locations.”

One apparent change in Anchorage’s testing policy was already posted recently to a city-sponsored website. It says city testing sites should only be used by people with symptoms of COVID-19, and close contacts of infected people.

That’s a change from the past, when the city encouraged residents without symptoms to get tested.

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