Anchorage, amid a coronavirus surge that’s stressing hospitals, scales back testing hours

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 the Loussac Library on Oct. 5, 2021 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

This story has been updated: Amid one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, Anchorage officials say they’re rationing testing

The company that runs Anchorage’s municipal coronavirus testing sites is scaling back its hours this week, even as the city continues to see some of the nation’s highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in the country.

Visit Healthcare, the city’s testing contractor, is reducing its hours starting Friday. Schedules posted by the company show that three of its testing sites — at the Midtown Anchorage library, the Muldoon Community Assembly and Changepoint church — will be open two or three fewer hours a day.

The change comes as Visit Healthcare’s COVID-19 testing contract is set to run out at the end of the month.

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

The multi-million-dollar contract began in July 2020 under former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration. Officials from new Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration have said city-sponsored testing and vaccination will continue, but add that they’re considering whether to change elements of their programs.

Visit Healthcare said the reductions total 108 hours a week. A company official, Emily Oestreicher, said in an email that it hopes to continue its testing 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.”

Anchorage’s testing policy, posted recently to a city-sponsored website, has also changed from encouraging residents without symptoms to get tested to saying that city testing sites should only be used by people with symptoms of COVID-19 and close contacts of infected people.

Bronson administration officials have said 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 a prepared statement sent through a spokesperson, Anchorage Health Director Joe Gerace said the department is reducing hours to make sure the budget for Visit Healthcare’s current contract lasts through the end of the month.

Anchorage is continuing to record hundreds of coronavirus cases a day, with a 10% rate of positive tests.

That puts the city at a “high” level of community virus transmission, according to indicators used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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.”

Bronson, 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.

Bronson has refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine himself. He’s also vigorously opposed mask mandates and restrictions on businesses, and at a recent public appearance, he endorsed unproven coronavirus treatments like Ivermectin.

At the same time, a prolonged and caustic debate has been playing out among the city’s elected officials over a proposed mask mandate: Many Assembly members support the idea, but Bronson and his supporters have vigorously opposed it, with critics delivering hours of testimony over the past week.

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