Anchorage health director says more COVID test sites should be running by next week

A white camper next to a line of cars in a snowy parking lot with two people in blue hospital gowns walking between them
The ChangePoint Church COVID-19 testing site run by Capstone had a line of about 30 cars on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage will have more COVID-19 testing capacity by the start of next week, said the city’s health director.

“I expect expanded testing hours at a lot of the current clinics, and I expect to see private providers stepping in and opening more clinics,” said Anchorage health director Joe Gerace during an interview Friday. “There’s no way we don’t have more testing in the next, you know, 72 hours kind of thing. That’s a fact.”

Gerace’s promise of increased testing capacity comes after a week of mounting complaints from the public and criticism from some Assembly members about the city’s testing capacity, hours-long waits at some testing sites and a lack of communication with the public. At the same time, the highly transmissible omicron variant has started surging in Alaska. The state recorded a new daily record of COVID-19 cases this week, driven by omicron.

Gerace on Friday didn’t provide specifics about where testing locations or expanded hours would be next week, but referred Anchorage residents to the city’s COVID-19 testing website for the most up-to-date information. 

RELATED: Here’s some tips for how to get tested for COVID in Anchorage

He said the city will continue to rely on private companies to do the testing, instead of contracting directly with testing companies. The city shifted to that approach over the past few months under Mayor Dave Bronson, and Gerace said the decision will save the city money. While COVID tests can be reimbursed by the federal government, through FEMA, it can take months or years for funding to come through, and Gerace said there’s no guarantee that the money will come in at all.

The health department has also been giving out free at-home rapid test kits at a few sites around the city, starting at the end of December, but it had run out of tests on Thursday. Gerace said the city is working to get more of them. 

“We’ve been trying to buy them for about a month and a half,” he said. “Obviously, there’s just no availability. And then when the President said he’s going to buy a half a billion of them — 500 million of them — nobody would even return calls.”

RELATED: More Alaska health care workers are out sick or in quarantine as omicron hits

Gerace also acknowledged shortfalls in communicating with the public in recent days, particularly after a major windstorm in the Mat-Su prevented one of the city’s busiest test sites from opening. The city’s COVID testing website wasn’t immediately updated to reflect the closure, leading to complaints from some Anchorage residents. 

“In totality, it could have been handled better, probably, but in truth, I think we had a pretty good response, given the parameters,” said Gerace. 

He said the department was also hit by staff shortages resulting from COVID-19. On top of that, the department’s public information officer, Robert McNeily, recently announced he was leaving. Gerace said the department is looking to hire a new spokesperson as soon as possible, and he touted recent hires of two epidemiologists. One is Reva Katz, who previously worked as a disease investigation specialist for the state health department during the COVID pandemic, according to her LinkedIn profile. Another, Dr. Ravi Mehrotra, is a part-time epidemiologist who was hired through the CDC Foundation but is housed within the Anchorage Health Department. 

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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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