Fixes underway to COVID-19 testing at Alaska’s airports, after long waits for results

Travelers disembark a plane from Seattle at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
Travelers disembark a plane from Seattle at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Friday, June 5, 2020. The airport was preparing for major changes to the state’s travel policy starting Saturday, June 6. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Dale Reid and his wife, Janice, got tested for COVID-19 at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on June 6, the first day it became an option for travelers.

Reid, 75, had surgery in Arizona. And they were on their way home to Juneau. Reid said the testing process went well. But then, days passed and they didn’t receive their results.

“We never heard,” he said. “So we started calling. And for a while it was a full mailbox.”

Reid said it took about a week for his wife to get her result back. It was negative. By Thursday, Reid said he still hadn’t gotten his result. He tested again in Juneau.

Reid isn’t alone. Some travelers who tested at the airport within the first week of the new system reported waiting at least six or seven days for their results. By Thursday, 60-year-old Lynn Carter, from Oregon, said she still hadn’t gotten the result from her test on June 8. She had quickly booked a flight to Alaska after her teenage grandson died in a car accident, and she had no time to test in Oregon.

Alaska health officials acknowledge that the testing system had issues in the beginning that led to some delays and confusion. But they say fixes are underway, and the process should be smoother and faster now.

“Ideally, we would like for all travelers to have their results within 72 hours. And, in most cases, that is what we’re seeing,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, a nurse consultant at Alaska’s Division of Public Health and the state’s port of entry coordinator for its COVID-19 response.

Signs at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport direct travelers where to go
Signs at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport direct travelers where to go depending whether they have their declaration form filled out and whether they have proof of a negative result from a test for COVID-19. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

“However, there are exceptions where we’re seeing three to five to seven days for the result’s turnaround,” Walker Linderman said in an interview Wednesday. “A lot of that, I would just say, is just the growing pains of standing up a process really fast and having thousands of people coming in and trying to get everything going really quickly.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on May 29 that the state would provide alternatives to the mandatory, two-week quarantine for travelers arriving in Alaska. The changes went into place about a week later.

“Since June 2, I have been working around-the-clock to get all the airports up and running,” Walker Linderman said.

People traveling to Alaska from out of state can now bring proof of a negative result from a test taken within 72 hours of their departure. Or, they can get tested at the airport and quarantine until they get their results.

Setting up the system involved hiring contractors and, some of them, then had to hire dozens of new employees. It also involved creating paper forms for travelers to fill out.

The testing process includes transferring a lot of data, and some issues sparked there.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of, there’s somebody whose handwriting wasn’t very good,” Walker Linderman said. “And so we input their email address wrong or we couldn’t read something on their form.”

The contractors have to send the tests to a lab. And then the results are sent back to the contractors who notify the travelers.

“We are working on adding more people to be able to process things at the lab on our end and then also equipping our contractors with enough resources,” Walker Linderman said.

Also, the testing site at the Anchorage airport — the busiest location — has moved to online forms, according to Micky Boyer, the operations manager for Capstone Family Medicine, the company running the health screenings there.

Boyer said he expects results to come back quicker as the online forms are used more often, coordination improves and employees settle into their new jobs. Capstone recently had to hire about 160 new workers to staff the airport.

“Getting all those people trained up and settled in and focused was part of the challenge,” he said. “We’ve made tremendous progress in the last week and a half.”

During the first week of testing, Walker Linderman said, about 13,000 travelers went through the new health screenings. And, about 30% of them opted for airport testing.

Walker Linderman said Thursday she did not have the number of passengers who decided to quarantine or the number who brought a negative test result with them. She said the state will have those totals from the second week of testing soon.

Boyer said, generally, Capstone is now telling travelers testing at the Anchorage airport to expect their results in three to five days.

“I think that we’re getting them out sooner now,” he said on Thursday. “So we will probably be able to tell them something different shortly. But I don’t want to give them false expectations.”

Both Boyer and Walker Linderman advised travelers to try to get tested before their flights. They said it’s still the fastest way to move through Alaska’s new process.

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