With signs of omicron spike in Alaska, residents scramble for hard-to-get tests

A woman in a yellow shirt and mask hands two boxes to someone under a glass plexiglass sheet
Free rapid at-home COVID-19 tests are distributed at Anchorage’s Spenard Recreation Center on Dec. 30, 2021 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in Alaska and state health officials say the highly transmissible omicron variant is likely behind the increase. 

The spike that began just before New Year’s celebrations coincides with a surge in demand for testing in Alaska’s largest city. Anchorage residents are reporting long lines for tests at the sites that are open and empty shelves at pharmacies while searching for at-home test kits. 

“We do have some evidence that cases are increasing, especially in the urban areas,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist, in a phone call Thursday. “It appears as though this is probably mostly due to omicron.”

Worldwide, data shows cases can double as quickly as every 1.5 days, said McLaughlin. 

In Alaska, the state health department reported 3,689 COVID-19 cases between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2, up 262% from the week before.

A chart shows a big increase in COVID cases
(Screenshot, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

McLaughlin said the true number of infections in Alaska is likely even higher because at-home test results aren’t included in the state’s case count, unless the person voluntarily reports it, and because some people aren’t getting tested at all. 

So far, only a handful of tests in the state have been confirmed as omicron, but McLaughlin preliminary data suggests that more than half of the samples sequenced recently are omicron. It can sometimes take two weeks to confirm a case of the variant. 

Meanwhile, the state is shifting its approach to testing by focusing more on at-home COVID-19 tests. On Saturday, it shut down free, COVID-19 lab tests for travelers at airports.

RELATED: What Alaska’s move to more at-home COVID tests and fewer lab tests means for managing the pandemic

Last week, Anchorage resident Emma Meneses was among the Alaskans braving the lines at another free testing site. She said she wound up at the Capstone test site at the Alaska Airlines Center after she couldn’t find an at-home test kit. Her daughter had tried to help.

“She went to the store for me last night and she couldn’t find any. They were all out at Walgreens and at Walmart, and so couldn’t do that,” she said. 

At-home test kits are increasingly being used nationwide and the Biden administration recently announced a purchase of half a billion to distribute around the country. They’re not quite as accurate as the PCR tests found at most drive-thru testing sites, but they give results within about 15 minutes. 

Empty shelves with a sign that says "due to limited supply, we are limiting the purchase of all over the counter covid-19 tests to four per transaction"
Many pharmacies around Anchorage were sold out of rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests on Dec. 29, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The Municipality of Anchorage started distributing free at-home test kits last week.

A site in Girdwood passed out all of its 500 tests within two hours. Alaskans can still pick up the test kits at the Spenard and Fairview recreation centers, according to the city.

Residents picking up at-home tests at the rec centers last week gave a variety of reasons for needing them. Some suspected they had COVID-19 but didn’t want to wait for hours for a test. Others were stockpiling kits or preparing for New Year’s get-togethers.

Daren Cole, a truck driver for a local soup kitchen, had a different reason. 

“It’s better for me to put it in my nose than somebody else,” he said.  

State health officials say they’re aware that it’s difficult for many Alaskans to get at-home test kits right now and they’re working to keep supply coming in. 

In addition to a shipment of kits from the federal government, the state is also working on buying its own supply to send out, but those have been delayed due to supply chain issues. 

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Public Health Director Heidi Hedberg said Alaska is using a dual approach to testing, keeping some traditional test sites open while it waits for shipping speed bumps to sort out. 

“I think it’s really going to be an ebb and flow, which is why we’re really making sure that communities have access to both types of tests,” she said “The key and the goal is if anyone has symptoms, please go get tested.”

Lab testing in Alaska has dropped in recent weeks, according to state data, and health officials say they hope that’s because of an increase in at-home tests.

Hedberg said residents can also purchase at-home tests online, though they can take days or weeks to arrive. 

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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