Travelers passing through the Anchorage airport can now get a free rapid at-home COVID-19 test.
The new program started Tuesday. In total, the state will get 50,000 tests from the federal government to distribute inside the security gates at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, plus at other locations, which it’s still pinpointing.
Alaska was one of five states picked to pass out the rapid tests based on COVID-19 rates and previous partnerships with the federal health department. The pilot program is part of a major push by the Biden administration to expand access to the over-the-counter, at-home tests as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19 this winter. President Biden also announced Thursday that private health insurance plans will soon reimburse people who buy the rapid tests.
The at-home tests are good for detecting positive cases quickly, with results in about 15 minutes, said Alaska’s state clinical pharmacist Coleman Cutchins. While they’re not quite as accurate as PCR tests, he said, health officials around the world are increasingly relying on them because of their convenience.
“For a lot of people, these rapid antigens should probably be your first test you do if you have symptoms,” he said. “A lot of ERs and clinics use them first even before they would run a PCR because if you test positive, you’re done.”
While a positive test is considered accurate, Cutchins said, there is a small risk of a false negative result.
He said Alaska’s entire batch of at-home tests hasn’t arrived yet due to delayed shipping during the holidays.
The state health department is also working on sending rapid test kits out to other Alaska communities that request them. It’s hoping to expand the test kit distribution to Fairbanks and Juneau airports, said Cutchins.
“We really did it as an initial pilot to gauge people’s interest: Do they want these tests? Do they want to have them available?” he said.
Separate from the pilot program, some local health departments, including in Mat-Su and Juneau, have recently started distributing rapid tests for free at community sites.
Also on Tuesday, the Anchorage airport moved its COVID-19 testing site to the inside of the security gates. It wants to keep the testing site from getting too crowded with members of the public, according to Megan Peters, a spokesperson for the airport.
“We want to keep the traveling public as safe as possible and let them have a sense of peace of mind while they’re traveling and inside of our airport,” said Peters.
Peters said that many airports around the country have testing inside security gates for the same reason.
Meanwhile, Anchorage’s health department quietly moved one of its longest-running and most popular testing sites at the Loussac Library to a nearby vacant lot. A health department spokesperson said the decision was made because a different operator could do the testing more cheaply.
The spokesperson did not answer questions about why the change wasn’t advertised in advance. Some Assembly members said they were concerned about the abrupt closure of the library location, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
In a Twitter post, the health department wrote: “Despite the local media reports that “no notice” was given, our anchoragecovidtest.org site continues to provide the MOA with the most accurate and relevant information in a matter of seconds.”