A joke is making the rounds in the Anchorage pharmacist community.
The phone rings. A staffer answers: “Pharmacy, this is ‘No we don’t have any at-home COVID tests.’ How can I help you?”
Like the rest of the country, Alaska is struggling to keep up with home COVID-19 test kit demand just as state health protocols start shifting toward more of a reliance on at-home testing. Drive-thru testing sites remain open in many communities including Anchorage, where tests are free to the public.
Generally, state health officials say, the reason for the shift is that home tests are typically more convenient and faster than lab-based PCR testing.
They’re better for screening people without symptoms, they can be done in the comfort of one’s home, and results come back within minutes, said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist.
But home tests come with some downsides, especially with the arrival of the omicron variant that likely accounted for a substantial number of new cases in Alaska over the last week, according to estimates by state health officials.
The tests aren’t as accurate as PCR tests. They also make it harder to track cases and do contact tracing because positive results aren’t reflected in state health department data that many use to track outbreaks in their communities as well as larger trends, McLaughlin said.
Early data from the federal Food and Drug Administration also suggests that rapid tests may not work as well at detecting omicron cases, McLaughlin said.
But, authorities say, home tests are convenient enough that they can help stall the spread of COVID-19 if kits are widely available and affordable.
Recently, they weren’t — at least in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough — but that changed somewhat this week.
Municipal officials in Anchorage and Mat-Su announced large new shipments of test kits that came in this week, though many retail outlets in Southcentral seemed to have few if any at-home tests in stock.
The Anchorage Health Department on Wednesday announced that it received 28,000 at-home test kits that arrived late Tuesday.
The municipality hopes to distribute the free kits at different locations from Eagle River to Girdwood, according to Corey Allen Young, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bronson.
“It’s going to be available to anybody free of charge,” Young said. “Obviously there’s going to be a limit.”
The city health department, which started distributing the tests Wednesday, also planned to give out more free tests Thursday from noon to 4 p.m. at the Fairview Recreation Center (1121 E. 10th Ave.) and Spenard Recreation Center (2020 W. 48th Ave.). Each center received a total of 2,000 kits, so supplies were limited to two per person as long as the kits hold out.
Two tests per family will also be available downtown Friday at the Easy Park Chinook Lot (225 E St.) from 7 to 9 p.m.
The municipality’s COVID-19 testing site, anchoragecovidtest.org, includes pickup locations for free antigen test kits as well as links for ordering tests and retail options.
Supplies were also suddenly much more available in Mat-Su, where health authorities began distributing the first of an anticipated 63,000 free test kits to residents of Wasilla and outlying communities on Tuesday afternoon.
The City of Wasilla used federal CARES Act funds to buy 52,000 test kits, with the first 26,000 arriving this week and more arriving within the next few weeks, according to finance director Troy Tankersley. The city “jumped on that chance” to order tests before national supplies ran low, Tankersley said.
“We are very proud out here of what we’re accomplishing with these test kits and how far they’re reaching,” he said. “They’re very popular.”
Technically, the Wasilla kits are supposed to go to city residents, but city officials say nobody’s getting carded for residency when they pick them up.
The Mat-Su Health Foundation is donating another 11,000 for use around the region in other communities, according to spokesperson Robin Minard.
Kits will be available in the vestibule of the foundation’s offices off Crusey Street in Wasilla and at the Wasilla Library.
The foundation, working with the Mat-Su Borough, distributed 26,000 free test kits to the public in November. They got used up within about a week. At the start of this week, the only place to pick up a free at-home kit in Mat-Su was a small food pantry in a strip mall just outside Wasilla.
There should be plenty of test kits again soon, Minard said.
“People really love the anonymity of these kind of test kits,” she said. “We’ve heard so many anecdotal stories of, ‘Oh gosh, I tested. I was going to go out for Thanksgiving but I stayed home.’”
Mat-Su, a region known for anti-government leanings, has Alaska’s lowest urban vaccination rate: Just over 40% of residents 5 and up are vaccinated, compared to the statewide rate of more than 57%.
“We just want to keep the supply (going) while the state and then the federal government catches up here,” Minard said. “It’s nice for Mat-Su to be a leader on this. We have a low vaccination rate, so if we can do something else to (mitigate transmission), that’s really good.”
At Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, some home tests were available, but only past security for ticketed passengers.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services plans to end on-site COVID-19 testing at the state’s airports at the end of January. Officials say that’s due to declining popularity for the on-site PCR tests and rising popularity of the easy, private at-home versions.
McLaughlin said he thought the current scarcity of home tests could partially be attributed to a rush around the holidays as Alaskans took precautions before traveling or attending gatherings.
He was hopeful more home tests would be en route to the state soon. On a national call earlier this week, he was told that the federal government is in the process of distributing 50 million over-the-counter tests for uninsured and underserved communities.
There are also the 500 million tests that President Joe Biden has said will be made available to the general public over the next month, though details were still being worked out.
Meanwhile, in some other parts of the state, tests appeared more widely available this week.
At the Juneau Public Health Center, there were about 250 test kits available as of Tuesday afternoon, said Charles McKenry, an office worker at the center. Each household was allowed two free tests.
With some pharmacies around town out of stock, demand had picked up in the last couple days, McKenry said. He’d been told more tests were likely on the way.
In Bethel, the public health center was well-stocked with take-home tests that could be picked up in-person or mailed for free to surrounding villages.
A person who tests positive should self-isolate and seek follow-up care with a medical provider as soon as possible, McLaughlin said. Recently updated CDC guidance on isolation periods is available on the agency’s website.
“It’s important for people to trust a positive test result even if subsequent tests come back negative,” he added, explaining that the “false positive” error rate for these tests was very low.
A person whose home test result is negative — but who has symptoms that develop a few days after a gathering or a close contact tests positive — should consider getting a more accurate PCR test as backup, McLaughlin recommended.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of over-the-counter tests the federal government will distribute to uninsured and underserved communities. The number is 50 million, not 15 million. This story has also been updated to clarify the locations where the Anchorage Health Department is providing at-home test kits to members of the public.