Alaska’s top doc says expanded COVID-19 testing will be key to lifting restrictions on every day life

Businesses all over Alaska have been shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)
Businesses all over Alaska have been shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s chief medical officer said that when it comes to loosening restrictions in the state, much depends on learning who has the coronavirus. 

“When we’re thinking of, ‘how do we open things back up,’ testing is a key component of that, and so making sure that we’re testing broadly around the state is really, really important to do,” said Dr. Anne Zink. 

The state has started publicly providing information on how many people in each borough or area have been tested. The percentage of residents tested ranges from a low of .07 percent in Aleutians East Borough to 1.71 percent in Fairbanks North Star Borough. 

Zink said it’s important to test in different geographic areas to understand where the state should be devoting supplies and attention. 

“If we don’t know that it’s there, it’s hard for us to know how much personal protective gear that we need; how many hospital beds we need; are the social mitigation strategies that you all are doing and all this time and effort really helping. And the data that we’re showing looks like it’s really making a gigantic difference.”

Zink said one measure of whether the state is doing enough testing is whether the percentage of tests that come back positive is low. Alaska has had a relatively low percentage compared with other states. But that number has been rising in recent days, which Zink said she’s concerned about. Through Wednesday, 3.2 percent of the more than 7,200 tests done in the state have been positive. 

Zink said the state can lower that percentage by practicing social distancing and hand washing. She also said that investigating each case to learn who people who test positive for the virus have had close contact with is important. 

As part of the effort to broaden testing, the state has expanded the symptoms in the guidelines for who should be testing, while leaving the decision to test up to providers. Alaskans could be tested if they have two or more of the following new symptoms: chills; diminished sense of taste or smell; diarrhea; fatigue; fever; headache; muscle or joint aches; nausea; shaking; runny nose; sore throat; or sputum (mucus) production.  

Zink said that the more public health workers investigate cases, the more they’re amazed at how mild the symptoms can be. 

Even though the state is expanding testing criteria — Zink said testing supplies remain tight. 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said state officials will discuss ideas next week about how to get society and businesses in Alaska up and running again. He said the  goal will be to give Alaskans genuine hope. He said the approach will be led by the state’s medical team. 

“We all know that we cannot continue to live like this — nobody wants to live like this,” Dunleavy said. 

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications