Reacting to complaints from constituents about long lines at COVID-19 test sites and inconsistent information from the city health department, Anchorage Assembly members were ready to question officials from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration at a routine committee meeting on Wednesday.
But the city health director and other officials from the health department didn’t attend, citing “operational commitments and priorities.”
Assembly members have been increasingly vocal about concerns the city isn’t doing an adequate job communicating about how to get tested as COVID-19 cases rise quickly. The lack of attendance at the meeting added to a wider concern that the city’s health department isn’t prepared for the anticipated omicron surge that has already caused significant problems for schools and businesses in other cities.
“It’s vital that the health department and the administration are at those meetings, so that Assembly members and the public can hear directly from the health department and find out, you know, what’s happening and why it’s happening,” said Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia, who chairs the Health Policy Committee. “It’s particularly important now, where we are beginning to see a resurgence of COVID.”
Instead of attending the Wednesday meeting, Anchorage Health Director Joe Gerace emailed the Assembly responses to frequently asked questions.
Corey Allen Young, a city spokesperson, said Assembly members have access to all the information they need and certain members are raising concerns for partisan reasons. Young said Gerace has been responding to members’ individual questions over email on a regular basis.
COVID-19 cases have risen by 145% in Alaska the last week, which health officials say is linked to the omicron variant. Long lines and hours-long waits at testing sites have led residents to Twitter and other social media to complain. At-home test distribution was also disrupted this week due to a storm in the Mat-Su Borough.
There are also concerns about the city’s communication about where testing is available. One of the busiest test sites, at the Alaska Airlines Center, is operated by the state health department. On Wednesday afternoon, more than 50 cars were waiting in line there. Only a handful were at a city-run site on C Street.
West Anchorage Assembly Member Austin Quinn-Davidson wrote in a Tweet that the city’s testing infrastructure was falling apart under the Bronson administration.
“As Anchorage’s formerly first-rate COVID testing system falls apart under new leadership, I’m reminded of a statement made by our mayor in Sept. 2020: ‘I know how to end this epidemic…stop testing and we won’t have any more cases.’ Finally, a campaign promise kept,” she wrote.
City Manager Amy Demboski wrote to Assembly members in an email that Gerace had more than six hours of meetings scheduled for Wednesday including “HHAND (Housing Homelessness and Neighborhood Development) and Animal Control Advisory Commissions, Homelessness Facilitation Group, and AHD operational needs that require his attendance/attention.”
None of those meetings directly conflicted with the time of the health policy committee meeting. There was no Animal Control Advisory Commission meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
“I don’t believe it’s a valid reason for them to not attend that meeting,” said Perez-Verdia. “The meeting, again, was planned far in advance.”
In a video on the city’s health department Facebook page Tuesday night, Gerace said the city has “more test sites and test locations than we ever have had before during this pandemic.” He said the city has distribution of thousands of rapid at-home at city recreation centers. He also said residents could call a 907-646-3322 for test information including for language assistance or visit anchoragecovidtest.org to find updated information.
Several Anchorage residents testified at the health committee meeting Wednesday about long wait times at testing sites, out-of-date information on the health department’s website and delays in getting test results.
Jessica Parks, who works for RurAL CAP, told the Assembly committee the delays in testing were making it difficult for the organization to comply with a federal rule that requires employees at large companies get tested regularly if they aren’t vaccinated. The rule is currently under legal challenge.
“That plan is dependent on the availability of free or low cost COVID-19 tests that are available timely and throughout the city to be convenient to our employees,” she told the Assembly. “Our experiences with our staff over the last few weeks have been that the testing not only is not accessible, but it is definitely not convenient.”
Sarah Dykstra, an Anchorage resident, testified that her child care provider required a negative COVID test for her 3-year-old after travel. She said she looked up a test location on the city’s website and arrived at a testing site on Monday only to find it deserted.
“It’s one thing to have a limited test site but not having the appropriate information online has also been really confusing,” she said.
Capstone, which runs testing sites in the Anchorage area, said it had to close three locations on Monday due to staffing shortages linked to the windstorm in Mat-Su.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said Wednesday wasn’t the first time the Bronson administration hasn’t attended a committee meeting, and she worried that it was becoming a pattern.
“I’ve heard from some of the members and recognize that this is becoming an issue and making it difficult for members to be able to provide information and do our jobs,” she said during the meeting.
Correction: This story previously stated that Austin Quinn-Davidson represents Midtown. She represents West Anchorage. It’s also been updated to clarify that the mayor’s spokesperson Corey Allen Young was referring to certain Assembly members, not to all of them.