‘I thought it was going to be much worse’: Travelers landing in Anchorage navigate Alaska’s new COVID-19 testing rules

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Omar Jackson’s COVID-19 testing swab occurred just a few minutes after waiting in line near the Alaska Airlines baggage claim on Thursday at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

“My boys and I were pretty spooked about it,” Jackson said. “We thought it would be a big Q-tip, like, all the way up to the brain,” he said. “But it went pretty smooth.”

The 28-year-old from Portland, Oregon, had come to Alaska for a summer job as a seafood processor. He’s one of hundreds of new travelers to Alaska who are now having to navigate the state’s updated health mandate addressing interstate and international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the revised mandate, which went into effect on Saturday, out-of-state travelers who test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of boarding a plane to Alaska will be able to avoid the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement. Travelers can also get tested when they land and quarantine until they get a negative result.

Jackson chose to get tested upon arrival. So did Damon Yearly, from Seattle, who was here to pick up his kids so they could spend the summer together in Washington.

Both men said the experience was painless.

“I thought it was going to be much worse,” Yearly said when asked how his airport COVID-19 test had gone.

John MacKinnon, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said during a Wednesday briefing that airline traffic is about 20% of what it would be in a normal season, which has made conducting tests more manageable.

“And we expect as tourism and fishery travel to ramp up, we’ll be in shape, and a well-practiced team able to conduct these tests,” he said.

Still, MacKinnon said, “this is not an easy thing to do,” with 18 flights daily into Anchorage carrying about 1,800 passengers and seven flights daily into Fairbanks carrying about 600 passengers.

He said Alaska Airlines helped by making the now-required travel declarations available on their website and on all flights coming into Alaska.

When asked at the briefing how many positive results the airport tests have yielded so far, Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said, “I know of at least one case that got picked up at the airport testing that came out of Ketchikan.”

She said that while news of few positive test results was heartening, it is still important for travelers to Alaska to continue to take social distancing seriously even if their initial tests come back negative.

Nate Fonoimoana is swabbed by Jennifer Breton at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on June 11, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Kelly Frantz, of Capstone Family Medicine, packages a COVID-19 test. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Jesse Vance, 19, from Fairbanks, was returning home to Alaska after a family trip to Hawaii on Thursday morning. He said this was his first trip out of the state in a while.

“Honestly, it’s really nice they’re offering this,” he said, gesturing to the testing site nearby. “It seems like they’re taking precautions to protect Alaskans.”

Nearby, Kathy Fit from Massachusetts wore a cloth mask and a visor with “Alaska” embroidered on it.

She is staying in Alaska for the summer — she has a house and some family in Healy, she said, and wasn’t nervous at all about the COVID-19 test she was about to receive.

Fit said she had considered getting tested before she left, but she’d heard that in Massachusetts, the current turnaround time for tests was about five business days.

“It didn’t make sense,” she said, knowing that it was unlikely her test result would come back in time for her flight to Alaska.

Besides, “a lot can happen in five days,” she added — she was worried about getting infected during the window between getting tested and landing in Anchorage.

On a rainy afternoon earlier this week, Elaine Lewis, 69, from Oregon, was in good spirits as she waited just outside the baggage area for her daughter, who she was visiting, to pick her up.

“I did the pre-test, so it was quick!” she said with a smile.

But there was a snag: finding a local testing site that was willing to test her without symptoms. She ended up having to drive across state lines to Moscow, Idaho, where a clinic was willing to test her as a travel precaution.

Omar Jackson, of Portland, talks with fellow travelers after he was swabbed for a COVID-19 test at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Nearby, Aden Murphy, 32, checked his phone. He was searching online for local food options as he waited for his luggage to appear.

A mechanic from Oregon who recently accepted a job in Alaska, Murphy said that for weeks, he’d been having to push back his flight. The delays came from confusion around what travel was considered essential, and how best to comply as an out-of-state worker.

It wasn’t until new travel restrictions provided an opportunity for him to get tested at the airport that his employer gave the green light, he said.

Since then, Murphy said life has gotten easier.

“It took me two minutes to get tested,” he said, gesturing upstairs to one of the new airport testing locations.

Which is not too bad, he said, considering: “I’ve been trying to get here for two months!”

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