Amid one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, Anchorage officials say they’re rationing testing

a medical professional swabs a driver's nostril
Jose Urrutia gets a nostril swab in August at one of Anchorage’s free COVID-19 testing sites. City officials say they’re scaling back hours at those sites because of a budget shortfall. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage health officials say a budget shortfall is forcing them to ration COVID-19 testing while the city endures one of the nation’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.

A spokesman for Mayor Dave Bronson said the administration plans to ask the city Assembly for additional cash “in the near future.” But for now, it’s scaling back its testing contractor’s hours at multiple sites around the city, with reductions totaling 108 hours a week, the contractor said.

Technically, Anchorage’s purchase order with its testing provider, California-based Visit Healthcare, runs through the end of October. But the city is paying a flat rate of $98 a test, and amid Alaska’s delta variant-driven surge, demand has been so high that without the reduced hours, Bronson’s administration would have exhausted its appropriation from the Assembly by Oct. 18, according to Acting Health Director Joe Gerace.

“When we extended the contract, things were very slow,” Gerace said. “Nobody foresaw the delta variant cranking testing numbers up to 1,500 a day.”

Gerace said the latest contract extension, valued at some $7.5 million, was for 90 days. That would mean it started in early August — just as Alaska’s current surge began to take hold, and as hospital administrators warned that their capacity was being stretched.

RELATED: Anchorage’s multi-million-dollar testing, vaccination contracts in limbo as Bronson administration considers its options

News of the reduced hours, which begin Friday, quickly caused anxiety and frustration among some residents and city Assembly members — with some critics speculating that the cuts to testing stemmed from a deliberate effort by Bronson’s administration to suppress Anchorage’s case counts.

“Rationing tests during the highest COVID rates we’ve seen in our community since the pandemic began is dangerous,” Assembly Member Austin Quinn-Davidson said in a message. “It’s also unnecessary. If the mayor and his team need an additional appropriation, I’m certain the Assembly would take swift action to approve that appropriation to protect public health.”

The city’s positivity rate, at roughly 10%, is already high, and some Assembly members and medical experts say Anchorage should be doing more testing, not less.

The mayor, a conservative elected earlier this year, has questioned scientists’ and doctors’ coronavirus guidance. And he’s blamed vaccine mandates, not the virus, for the stress on the city’s health care system — though data released by Alaska hospitals show that very few workers, so far, have been fired for refusing the shots.

Related: Anchorage Mayor Bronson says he won’t push masks or vaccines, hires new top doc

Bronson’s health department has also experienced substantial turnover since he was sworn in July 1: Its public health manager resigned last week, and its epidemiologist and longtime infectious disease specialist both left their jobs during the summer.

In a call with reporters late Thursday afternoon, Gerace said there’s no effort to suppress the city’s case counts and that instead, officials are trying to ensure that testing can continue while remaining available to the people who most need it.

The city is also trying to tighten its criteria for testing and, in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, discouraging it for asymptomatic, vaccinated people who haven’t had extended close contact with an infected person.

“People that are fully vaccinated shouldn’t be getting tested just because someone in the office walked by,” Gerace said.

“We don’t want people not to go get tested,” he added. “The piece we really want to make sure is that the people that need the test have those services available to them.”

Anchorage officials also pointed out that other testing options are available.

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At a state-funded testing site at the Alaska Airlines Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, there were no lines Thursday, and Anchorage School District officials also reminded families that it has six sites open for staff, students and household members who either have COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to infected people.

Nonetheless, a number of Anchorage Assembly members questioned the idea of scaling back city-sponsored testing during the middle of the current surge.

Cars in a line with a person in a blue gown talking to someone through the window
Cars waiting in line for a COVID-19 test at a city-sponsored site at Anchorage’s Loussac Library this week (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

All three of Anchorage’s hospitals are currently operating under crisis standards of care, as the extra-contagious delta variant has filled intensive care units and stressed staffing and bed space.

“If there’s a reduction in hours, it seems to make very little sense. Especially since many Assembly members, at the behest of the community, just advocated for expanded services, since lines were spanning parking lots and it was taking hours to get a test,” said Assembly Member Meg Zaletel. “We know, with the current high transmission rate of COVID in our community, testing needs to be readily accessible and convenient so people will use it.”

She added: “We’ve got to have COVID testing right now, more than ever, and reducing that service doesn’t make sense to me.”

Related: Alaska activates emergency crisis protocols in 20 health care facilities

With Visit Healthcare’s testing contract set to expire at the end of the month, the company, in a prepared statement from Chief Development Officer Emily Oestreicher, said it hopes to continue its work.

“Visit Healthcare has no intention of discontinuing its contract with the Municipality of Anchorage nor have we been informed about any plans by the municipality to do so,” she said, adding that the company has tested and vaccinating thousands of people in the city. “We are proud to have made a significant impact on the safety and well-being of this community.”

But Bronson administration officials say they’re examining whether to change Anchorage’s testing program to be more efficient.

Coronavirus testing is reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. But that’s the case only if the testing program is “fair and equitable” and complies with CDC guidelines, Gerace said.

The city also has to pay the initial bills for testing before FEMA issues its reimbursement, which can take up to a year, Gerace added. Based on the state’s contract for testing at UAA, Gerace said, he suspects that the city’s current rate of $98 a test is roughly $35 too high.

“The point of RFPs is to make sure the city’s getting the best bang for its buck,” he said. “And that’s the piece no one is talking about.”

Gerace has said that any new testing plans, or an extension of Visit Healthcare’s contract, will have to be introduced at next week’s Assembly meeting to leave members adequate time to approve it before the existing contract expires.

No proposal was on the meeting’s agenda when it was released Wednesday, though it could be added in the coming days.

In an email, a spokesman for Bronson, Corey Allen Young, said that a supplemental appropriation request will be submitted to the Assembly soon.

“Until supplemental funding is secured, the Municipality of Anchorage is actively managing our current resources to continue testing through the end of the month,” he said.

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