Anchorage residents are still waiting out long lines at COVID test sites

An aerial view of cars snaking through a snowy parking lot.
Wait times at the state-run Alaska Airlines Center were reported at about three hours on Monday morning. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Wilson Platt drove up to an Anchorage COVID-19 test site almost an hour before it opened Monday morning. He hoped he and his two young children could get tested quickly after a recent exposure. 

But two and a half hours later, they were still sitting in their pickup truck near ChangePoint Church, waiting to get tested. Platt had never expected it to take this long. His infant had run out of food during the wait, he said, forcing him to call his wife in from her teaching job to breastfeed.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the changes they’ve made in how they do the testing,” Platt said. “But it’s frustrating.”

Platt isn’t alone in his frustration. Across town, residents have voiced complaints and concerns about long lines at COVID-19 testing sites since last week when demand for testing spiked along with cases of the omicron variant. 

RELATED: Omicron drives Alaska to new daily record in COVID cases

In response to criticism last week, Anchorage health director Joe Gerace had promised more test sites and longer hours by Monday. But by the afternoon, the number of locations listed on Anchorage’s testing website hadn’t changed. And residents were still reporting waiting over three hours at some Anchorage testing locations, and hour-long waits at others.

Matt Jones is operations manager in Anchorage for Capstone Clinic, the company running most local test sites About the long lines, he said, it’s “just simply a matter of demand.”

“Lots of people are required to get tested right now,” he said.

It’s a nationwide issue. Across the country, from California to Kansas to New York, a sharp surge in omicron cases has led to long and frustrating COVID-19 testing lines.

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

In Alaska, Jones said Capstone hasn’t yet experienced worker shortages due to COVID-19 infections, though it did face staffing problems last week due to the major Mat-Su windstorm. The challenge, he said, is the sudden and sharp increase in demand for testing. Capstone is testing double the number of people it was just a few weeks ago.

“We were doing 800 to 1,000 tests a day,” he said. “Now we’re doing like 2,000 tests a day.”

Jones said Capstone is hiring more workers and hopes to open another test site in the Muldoon area soon, though he didn’t have an exact date. The company also hopes to expand hours at its Spenard site, at Alaska Park near the airport, to 24 hours, he said. That site doesn’t have a drive-up option.

Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for the Mayor Dave Bronson, wrote in an email Monday that the COVID testing sites are run by private vendors and the city can’t control their operations. The administration shifted to private vendors over the past few months, which it says will help avoid the risk that the federal government won’t reimburse the city for the test costs.

Not everyone thinks the move to private vendors is worth the potential cost savings. 

Downtown Assembly member Chris Constant said while there are advantages to moving to private vendors to provide testing, he wants the Bronson administration to do more to expand testing capacity. 

“The fact is, we have a duty of public health responsibility to the community to provide the public with testing, with health care that needs to be available, because we are still — whether you like it or not — in the midst of a pandemic and a national emergency,” he said. 

While the city has continued to report high daily case counts, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has so far remained relatively low. On Monday, there were 80 COVID patients in Alaska hospitals. The state health department reported 3,284 new COVID cases between Friday and Sunday, about half of them in Anchorage residents. 

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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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