LISTEN: Study finds Alaska’s airport testing program may have kept COVID rates lower

Travelers arriving from out of state go through the health screening process at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s air traveler testing program may have contributed to relatively low rates of coronavirus infection in the state.

That’s the finding of research published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention morbidity and mortality report for this week.

Dr. Liz Ohlsen, a staff physician with the state Department of Health and Social Services, is one of the study’s authors. Ohlsen says just in the first six months of the testing program, June to November 2020, the state found nearly 1,000 COVID-positive air travelers arriving in Alaska.

LISTEN HERE:

Read a full transcript of the conversation with minor edits for clarity.

Dr. Liz Ohlsen: We were then able to help those folks understand they were positive, understand what that meant, explain isolation, explain what to do next. So I think that going along with some of the education that went with the travel program, that’s been an impact on Alaska.

Casey Grove: So what comes out of that data? I mean, what are the big things that stand out for you in this research?

LO: The main point of this paper is to show how Alaska did it. Alaska has really been a leader among states in trying to determine the best practices around air travel during the pandemic. And so this paper talks about how we did it, and how we set up the partnership between communities, and how the partnership between communities and the travel industry in the state work together, and the costs and the benefits associated with having this program in place in case somewhere else wants to set up something similar.

But it also shows us that the testing was working and was helping pick up infections among people arriving. And there were also probably some infections that were picked up before people even traveled.

CG: This research also seems particularly relevant given Alaska’s isolation. The fact that we’re so isolated — does that make us a really good place to study this particular issue of testing people through airports?

LO: Yeah, I think it is. Here at the State, we, of course, think a lot about how to use Alaska’s unique situation to try and protect Alaskans from COVID coming in. And I think the idea with this program was to try and use that sort of unique location that we have to do the best we could in preventing folks bringing COVID into the state without knowing it.

I will say that in the paper, one thing we say is it might have contributed to lower incidence. There were a lot of limitations to the data collected here. So we aren’t able to say, ‘Yes, it definitely stopped this many infections from happening.’

Part of that is just the reality of public health: When you prevent something, you can’t prove it would have happened otherwise. It may have contributed to the lower incidence of COVID during the summer, but we aren’t able to prove that with these data.

CG: It seems like it’s saying ‘We have this program in place to provide people with more information about whether or not they were positive, and what they should do about that, and that a lot of people probably made the right choice, and that led to a lower incidence of COVID in Alaska.’ Is that fair to say?

LO: Yes, and keeping in mind that last piece — we’re really not able to draw that straight line and say, yes, this definitely prevented X number of cases. But I think you’re right — the education piece of this, making sure this program was another way of putting information in the hands of Alaskans and helping Alaskans and other folks that were arriving in Alaska understand what to do if you are positive for COVID. And to communicate the ways we recommend you either social distance or quarantine after traveling to prevent bringing the virus to folks you’re meeting and folks you love.

CG: Have you traveled at all since getting vaccinated or more recently?

LO: I have not. I’m looking forward to traveling at some point. My mother did visit me once she was fully vaccinated and I had been vaccinated. And it was so wonderful to be able to see my mother after over a year.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.