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As COVID-19 cases increase, so do waits for test results

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services

Between Friday and Sunday, Alaska reported than 400 people had tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 333 are residents. That’s more than 13 percent of all the resident cases since the pandemic began in the state.

Another 78 were nonresidents, including 34 in Seward at a seafood processing plant. Sunday marked a record high, with 231 total cases reported in a single day. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services says this comes from a variety of factors, including widespread community transmission from social gatherings and seafood plant outbreaks, but also a test backlog.

A little over a week ago, the state public health lab completely ran out of the chemical reagent that is used for testing. To test people for COVID-19, labs are commonly using what’s called a polymerase chain reaction test, which is commonly used to expand a small sample into something scientists can study. It relies on chemical reagents.

But with the number of tests across the country increasing rapidly, that’s put a lot of pressure on the supply chain. Theresa Savidge, a microbiologists with the state public health lab in Anchorage, says it’s not just the reagent that’s running short, either.

"We’re just always being fluid and finding new ways to do things," she said. "We have to be creative in this time, because it’s not just Alaska that’s short. It’s not just a short of reagents as a nation. It’s the plastics that the reagents go into sometimes hold things up. It’s shipping. It’s a lot of different reasons."

After they ran out of reagent, they switched to another form of testing, which allows them to keep running tests, Savidge said.

"The strategy behind the testing was to see if we couldn’t diversify that testing so that if a reagent shortage were to take place, we could fall back on another method," Savidge said.

DHSS spokesman Clinton Bennett said the state has other testing mechanism at its labs in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and some testing--incluidng the testing at the airport-- are sent out of state to commercial labs. Current turnaround times for testing samples are between 24 and 72 hours after receipt, he said. But that doesn't include shipping delays on both ends and the original testing provider informing the patient.

As of Sunday, the state had run 207,264 COVID-19 tests. One of the indicators for tracking if the pandemic is under control is the percent testing positive. Alaska came in with 1.91 percent positive for tests conducted Sunday, which is still better than many states in the Lower 48. Arizona, for example, reported 12.7 percent positive on Sunday.

The peninsula fared better than other Railbelt communities for new cases over the weekend, with 17 cases reported between Friday and Sunday. Central Peninsula Hospital is conducting about 50 tests per day, and that includes the outpatient procedures and inpatient beds. In Homer, South Peninsula Hospital is conducting about 70 per day, with an extra 50 last week at the Homer Spit pop-up testing site, according to hospital spokesperson Derotha Ferraro.

The increased testing turnaround time has been snarling up some procedures. People coming in for outpatient procedures are required to test negative within 48 hours of their procedures. But right now, state-processed swabs are taking up to a week to come back. The rapid tests that the hospital can do have been reported to be unreliable as well.

Many central peninsula businesses have started requiring or heavily encouraging masks, including Walmart, Fred Meyer, Safeway, Alyeska Tire, and River City Books, among others. During a briefing last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy asked Alaskans to wear masks and socially distance to bring the escalating case counts down. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce echoed that call for peninsula residents in a Facebook Live message Monday, emphasizing the importance of opening schools.

"I don’t think we need mandates to tell us whether to wear a mask or not to wear a mask, frankly," Pierce said. "I think as individuals, if we take individual responsibility for ourselves—and you are responsible for yourself, I don’t know if you knew that or not, but you are. Your actions have impacts on others. So what I’m asking you to do today is follow those three rules: wash, social distance, and wear a mask when you need to. Put one in your pocket, carry it with you, and if you need it have it readily available."

As of Monday, there had been 2,622 resident COVID-19 cases reported in the state, with 276 reported on the peninsula. Of those, 176 are currently active, with eight hospitalizations and two deaths, according to the state.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at

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