It’s a little after six at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport, and the passengers from the Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle are disembarking the plane. Standing in front of the exit, an airport worker waves a sign alerting travelers to “free COVID testing.” Most people walk straight past and go right to baggage claim.
The state began testing travelers as part of its screening process a little over a year ago. In the last year, the program has caught nearly 3,000 of the state’s positive coronavirus cases. But in February, when the state’s disaster declaration expired, COVID tests for travelers became optional. It’s still available, but at a recent Unified Command meeting, Sitka’s EMS Captain Rob Janik said those numbers have been dropping.
“Airport testing continues, but remains vastly underutilized. They have staff over their meeting every flight offering testing to every passenger who arrives. But only a couple few people have been taking advantage of that off of every flight,” he said.
For the last year, Sitka officials were tracking how many people tested at the airport each day. But the city stopped receiving regular data from the airport testing center in late May. At the meeting, Janik said he hoped to begin reporting the daily testing data again soon.
“You know, like around Christmas time, there were about 236 people got tested prior to travel, and 222 people got tested at Sitka, specifically at that time,” said Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink in an interview with KCAW.
Zink said that number has continued to decrease.
“In the month of April, for example, there were 83 people that tested. 67 people in the month of May.”
She said Sitka isn’t alone. Across the state, the number of travelers who took an airport COVID test decreased quite a bit over the last few months. At the same time, vaccine availability increased dramatically, which could account for many travelers opting out.
Zink said the state plans to provide testing at most Alaska airports through the end of the tourist season, and potentially into the fall, depending on how the pandemic evolves.
“It’s free and anyone can get tested,” she said. “So young, old, vaccinated, not vaccinated, symptomatic, asymptomatic, no charge. So it’s available on free to anyone who would choose to get tested.”
Travel continues to be a major factor in viral spread. Zink said unvaccinated travelers should still get tested. And for those that have completed the vaccine, they should be tested if they’re showing any symptoms. Vaccinated with no symptoms? Zink said that’s up to the individual. She cited a recent trip she took as an example.
“When I went and visited my father, you know, who’s getting chemotherapy I got tested prior to travel and then again after I returned back, just because I would hate it and accidentally have picked it up and be able to spread it to someone who was at higher risk,” she said.
But Zink said it isn’t the decrease in airport testing that keeps her up at night.
“It’s the fact that it’s easy to think that COVID is just done, and it’s over,” she said. “And unfortunately, we still see it spreading. And we can see a kind of spread and take off and really surge in certain communities at any given time. And so we’ve got tools at our disposal to minimize it and to keep each other safe and healthy.”
Zink said testing at the airport, before or after travel, remains one of those tools, particularly for unvaccinated or symptomatic people. The program is still free to all travelers, and will be available at least through the summer.