As the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to sweep through the nation, state and city officials are reporting some of the highest infection rates of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, the City and Borough of Juneau’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 511 new COVID-19 cases since Jan. 14, along with a seven-day test positivity rate of 17%. Given the availability of home tests, the city’s test positivity rate is likely higher, with many home test results going unreported to local public health authorities.
Across the state, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported 10,202 new cases, 64 deaths and 126 COVID-related hospitalizations. Bartlett Regional hospital reported five in-patient COVID-19 cases Wednesday.
Despite the climbing numbers, in a Wednesday morning White House Regional Press Briefing, federal officials said that the nation is in a better place than it was a year ago.
Courtney Rowe, director of external engagement and strategic messaging for the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said that even though omicron is exceptionally contagious, the country has more tools to detect and combat the virus.
“President Biden came to office during the worst public health crisis in a generation,” Rowe told reporters.
She said that because of Biden’s actions, COVID-19 won’t always be a crisis and that vaccines administered since he took office have saved over one million lives.
“We aren’t there yet, but we will get there. We are in a much stronger position,” Rowe said before detailing the president’s actions and policies to curb the spread of the virus and help the country return to more normal conditions.
Testing part of the strategy
Rowe said that ramping up testing is a crucial weapon to fight the virus and the federal government’s new website to request free home testing kits is a step in the right direction.
Under criticism after weeks of shortages, the administration is working to make COVID-19 rapid test kits more available and accessible to Americans by boosting supply and lowering costs.
A new federal website to request free test kits officially launched this week, with the first shipments going out to U.S. households by the end of the month. In addition, most Americans can now get reimbursed for tests that they purchase.
Earlier this month, Robert Barr, CBJ deputy city manager, said the city is “pretty consistently” running out of at-home test kits across distribution centers, which include the City Hall cash office, all public libraries, Juneau Public Health Center and the Juneau Police Station, according to the city.
Every household can now order one set of four free at-home COVID-19 self-tests from the federal government at covidtests.gov. The United States Postal Service will deliver the tests completely free of charge.
During the briefing, Dr. Tom Inglesby, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said the mail-order tests are an essential part of the effort to help increase the supply of available tests.
“We are doing everything to increase supply in the United States and continue to grow that number,” he said.
Inglesby said the effort is a critical tool in helping make sure tests are available and that tests from other streams won’t be interrupted to support the mailing effort.
Dr. Cameron Webb, senior policy advisor for equity to the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said that increasing access to testing is critical.
“The program is geared at making sure we have tests and access. I can’t say enough about covidtests.gov. We are really making sure people have access to tests, especially for communities that have been under siege and front-line workers,” Webb said.
In Juneau, drive-thru PCR testing remains available at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Site, 2601 Sherwood Lane. Results are generally available within 24 hours. Test registration is open at Juneau.org/covid-19. Tests also at the Juneau International Airport through the end of this month.
Vaccines make a difference
Rowe and Webb said that vaccination is an essential tool in combatting the pandemic.
“For vaccinated people, COVID is no longer a life and death matter,” Rowe said.
Webb said that federal efforts are helping to close gaps in vaccination rates among racial groups using several tactics, including community vaccination centers.
CBJ has hosted several community-wide vaccination clinics, and it appears the strategy is working.
According to the city’s dashboard, 84% of Juneau’s eligible population has received at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 78% of the city’s eligible population has completed the series.
DHSS reports that 58.1% of all Alaskans age five and over are vaccinated. According to the New York Times, about 63% of Americans are fully vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded its recommendation on COVID-19 booster doses to include anyone age 12 and over.
On Jan. 22, CBJ, the Juneau Public Health Center, Bartlett Regional Hospital, and the Juneau School District are jointly sponsoring a free vaccine and booster clinic at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School 1600 Renninger St.
The event will occur between 10 a.m and 2 p.m. Saturday, with pre-registration now available at junweau.org/vaccine.
Q&A on home test delivery
How can I request a free test?
Free tests can be ordered at covidtests.gov or at usps.com/covidtest. The first tests will ship by the end of January. The White House says “tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering” through the U.S. Postal Service. USPS reports shipping times of 1-3 days for its first-class package service in the continental United States. Shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, Army Post Office (APO), Fleet Post Office (FPO) and Diplomatic Post Office (DPO) addresses will be sent through Priority Mail.
Importantly, given the shipping and process times, Americans will need to request the tests well before they meet federal guidelines for requiring a test.
Does the website work?
The White House emphasized that the website was in “beta testing” when it made tests available for ordering for the first time on Tuesday. At points, more than 750,000 people were accessing the website at the same time, according to public government tracking data, but it was not immediately known how many orders were placed.
There were isolated reports Tuesday afternoon of issues relating to the website’s address verification tool erroneously enforcing the four-per-household cap on apartment buildings and other multi-unit dwellings. A spokesperson for the Postal Service said in a statement that the error was “occurring in a small percentage of orders.” He said any user needing assistance could file a service request at emailus.usps.com/s/the-postal-store-inquiry or contact a help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.
When should I test?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at-home testing when people experience COVID-19 systems including fever, cough, sore throat, respiratory symptoms and muscle aches; five days after a potential COVID-19 exposure; or as part of test-to-stay protocols in schools and workplaces.
How many tests can I order from the website?
The White House says that “to promote broad access,” shipments from covidtests.gov will initially be limited to four rapid tests per residential address, no matter the number of occupants.
Is there another way to get a test kit for free?
Starting on Jan. 15, private insurers have been required to cover the cost of up to eight at-home rapid tests per month per insured person, under a new Biden administration rule.
People have the option of buying tests at a store or online, then seeking reimbursement from their health insurance provider. Insurers are being incentivized to work with pharmacies and retailers to develop plans to cover the cost of the tests with no out-of-pocket cost to customers, but those programs will not be immediately widespread.
Those with public health insurance through Medicare, or without insurance, are being directed to covidtests.gov to order tests or to community health centers in their area offering free testing.
How will I be reimbursed?
The Biden administration says the procedures will differ from insurer to insurer, and it is encouraging Americans to save receipts from rapid test purchases for later reimbursement and to reach out to their insurance providers for information.
Critically, the requirement only covers purchases on or after Jan. 15. Insurers are not expected to retroactively reimburse the cost of tests purchased earlier.
What are other testing options?
The Biden administration is emphasizing that the website is just one tool for Americans to access COVID-19 testing. Millions of free tests are available at participating pharmacy locations, community health centers and Federal Emergency Management Agency-backed sites in some parts of the country experiencing a surge in cases.
In Juneau, drive-thru testing remains available at the Hagevig Regional Fire Training Site, 2601 Sherwood Lane. Results are generally available within 24 hours. Test registration is available at Juneau.org/covid-19.
Which home test will I get?
That will vary. The federal government has secured more than 420 million tests for distribution through covidtests.gov already, with plans to increase the order to 1 billion tests in the coming weeks. All of the tests supplied will be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and are capable of detecting the more-transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19, which is the dominant strain in the U.S. While they are packaged differently and may use slightly different procedures, officials said, the test mechanisms of detection and effectiveness are generally the same. All tests will come with detailed instructions.
Why is Biden buying these test kits?
It represents an acknowledgement by the president that the administration needs to do more to increase access to COVID-19 testing, which is an important tool to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In cases where infected people show symptoms or not, testing is the only way to find out if they have the virus so they can avoid being out and about and potentially spreading disease.
Demand for test kits soared as the holidays neared and people grew eager to test themselves and their families before traveling and as the omicron variant spread rapidly in just a few weeks to become the dominant strain in the U.S.
Biden’s promise of 1 billion test kits is in addition to the administration’s earlier pledge to send 50 million rapid tests to community health centers across the country.
How much will the program cost?
The White House estimates the cost of purchasing and distributing the first 500 million tests at about $4 billion. That will be paid for with money from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill Biden signed into law in March.
Will the government program make it harder for me to find a test at the drugstore?
White House officials say the covidtests.gov tests are coming from new manufacturing capacity and should not interfere with existing supplies that drugstores, health clinics and state governments are relying on.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.