State wants to do more tests, but only the right kind

Certain tests are more useful than others

Several new testing sites have been set up around Alaska after the state lowered its threshold for who can be tested for COVID-19.

In Juneau, Capital City Fire/Rescue’s testing site at Hagevig Fire Training Center in the Mendenhall Valley will have daily openings and has the capacity to test 40 more people per day than are typically being tested, according to CBJ.

While testing is an important part of containing the virus, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said not all kinds of tests are equally helpful.

Currently, the state is using what’s called a polymerase chain reaction or PCR test. Those test for people who currently have the virus and may not identify everyone who is ill.

“You may not have enough of the virus in you,” Zink said at a press conference in March. “Just because you test negative you may develop symptoms in the following days.”

There’s another kind of test that looks for antibodies, which can tell if someone has had COVID-19 and recovered. That information can be useful in determining where the virus has been and its impact on the body.

But the accuracy and utility of those tests is a matter of debate, Zink said.

“How useful they can be and where we should use them is harder to know,” Zink said.

Zink said the information provided by these tests can be as good as “flipping a coin,” and that other governments have purchased these tests but found them, in some cases, unusable.

“At this time, we don’t believe the antibody test is one that, for today, you can make a decision about what you should or shouldn’t do,” Zink said at a press conference last Thursday.

Zink also said other medical professionals had requested the Food and Drug Administration pull certain antibody tests from the market because they were concerned with their accuracy.

But there were things the tests can show, Zink said, and the state has ordered some.

“We want to keep going where the puck’s going, but we want to make sure we do it in a safe way that protects all Alaskans,” Zink said.

The Department of Health and Social Services did not respond to a request for how many antibody tests the state had purchased.

Juneau city officials have asked people looking to be tested to first call the COVID-19 Screening Hotline, 586-6000. People can call noon-6 p.m. daily.

Contact reporter Peter Segall at Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.