A SEARHC staff member prepares a COVID-19 test at the the drive-thru testing site in Sitka. “Due to the low incident rate and the high volume of tests, the best way to care for our community coming into flu season is to prioritize symptomatic testing, ensuring testing supplies remain ample and test results can be processed as rapidly as possible,” SEARHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl said in a statement on Tuesday. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KCAW)

SEARHC has ended free asymptomatic testing for the coronavirus in Sitka and around Southeast Alaska. Patients without symptoms can still request a test, but it will cost them, and the results may take longer. 

Sitka’s drive-thru weekend testing started in July and was funded by a grant from the Indian Health Service (IHS). The money paid for around 13,000 tests in Southeast and revealed 11 positive cases of COVID-19 in Sitka. Those grant funds are now exhausted.

SEARHC spokesperson Maegan Bosak said the end of free asymptomatic testing is part of a broader strategy to prioritize tests for those who have symptoms in preparation for a possible spike in cases this winter.

“SEARHC is revising the testing policies in preparation for what may be coming to our Southeast region this winter in terms of the pandemic. And also to ensure we can keep the resulting times, turnaround times as low as possible,” she said. “So really limiting the quantity of testing and focusing specifically on patients or individuals that are showcasing symptoms.”

Sitkans who don’t have symptoms will now have to bill their insurance or pay 145 dollars out-of-pocket if they want a test. Asymptomatic test results may also have a longer turnaround time than symptomatic test results.

This won’t affect free testing for travelers at the airport, which is offered through a partnership between the state and the city. Regular testing will also continue for frontline health care workers and emergency personnel. 

Sitkans still have access to free testing if they’ve had close contact with someone who tested positive or are experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus, like a sore throat, loss of taste or smell, or shortness of breath. Testing will continue at the tent in front of Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center, but people will have to call ahead for an appointment, Bosak said.

“All testing needs to be scheduled through the COVID hotline,” Bosak said.

Sitka reported its highest active case count since the start of the pandemic on Tuesday (11-3-20) and is operating in the high alert zone. Daily case counts remain high around the state, but outside of Juneau, Southeast continues to have the lowest case rate per capita of any region.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.