Alaska’s COVID-19 cases rose through September even though fewer Alaskans got tested for the virus that causes the highly infectious disease.
This week marked nearly two weeks of triple-digit daily increases as, health officials say, COVID-19 picked up speed through community spread especially in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and northern Alaska.
The testing drop isn’t necessarily surprising after levels peaked this summer at national highs as thousands of seafood workers and incoming travelers required to test sent counts soaring.
But there are also growing numbers of COVID-19 critics who simply don’t want to get tested and are discouraging others from doing so, top health officials say. Maybe they’re suffering from “COVID fatigue” after months under pandemic restrictions. Or maybe they believe fewer positives will lead to reopened schools and businesses. President Donald Trump, who was hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, has discouraged broad testing several times during the pandemic.
Health officials say that strategy can backfire.
Somebody with COVID-19 is most infectious two days before they detect symptoms and two days after — and 20% to 40% of people with the virus may not have symptoms at all, according to Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. That’s why it’s important to test as much as possible: to make sure positive cases are caught before the virus spreads into vulnerable populations like senior-care centers or leads to bigger outbreaks that can really shut things down.
Zink gets angry emails from testing skeptics, fields questions on town hall forums, and hears from health workers. Some call the virus a hoax or label the test a “DNA biopsy” they want no part of.
Zink also experiences skeptics first hand in the emergency-room shifts she still works at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center near Wasilla: patients rejecting a test because there’s no way they have COVID-19, or saying they’d rather quarantine at home than be subjected to that nasal swab.
“I don’t know how prevalent it is … we don’t have a good survey on that,” she said in an interview last week. “But I do know that our testing has gone down, it’s not supply chain, and our percent positivity has gone up. So those are the objective things I have to work on.”
One Anchorage business owner who didn’t want to be identified said he’s skeptical of the amount of testing being done on people without symptoms who then test positive and drive up case rates without being sick.
For him, getting swabbed over what could be allergy symptoms, or without symptoms at all, feels unnecessary especially if a new case adds ammunition for business closures destroying financial and personal lives, sometimes to the point of suicide.
But he also said he’d get tested if he had clear symptoms.
For others, there’s no reason to get tested at all, as voiced by one viral post making the rounds on social media in mid-September.
A member of the private OpenAlaska Facebook group shared the debunked post from English conspiracy theorist David Icke. The group has 7,100 members who tend to…