Starting Aug. 11, all nonresidents traveling to Alaska must have a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours before they arrive — and testing won’t be available for nonresidents upon arrival as it is now, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on Tuesday.
“Testing on Aug. 11 for nonresidents will cease,” Dunleavy said. “They need to come into the state of Alaska with a negative test.”
The new protocol won’t affect Alaska residents, for whom testing will remain available upon arrival back in Alaska.
The governor announced the new interstate travel protocol during an early evening press conference at which the steadily rising number of positive COVID-19 test results involving residents and nonresidents was acknowledged by Dunleavy and Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink.
“Alaska's resident cases grew 34% in the last week,” Zink said. “We've had a rapid increase in both resident and nonresidents cases.”
Most new cases involve people in their 20s and 30s, according to Zink, noting that large gatherings with minimal social distancing continue to be a factor.
Although Zink said that “travel doesn’t seem to be the main driver” of new cases, Dunleavy cited the incidence of travelers arriving in Alaska with the virus was a factor in the decision to end the availability of upon-arrival testing for nonresidents.
The other factor cited was a “tightening” of testing supplies.
“We continue to see a reagent shortages nationwide,” Zink said. “... It does impact testing across the state and particularly in some of our rural communities. We are able to get alternatives usually available, but sometimes those take longer.”
Dunleavy said the change to the travel protocol for nonresidents would allow the state to “redirect some of those resources to our internal testing, to test Alaskans, to focus on Alaskans.
“As the equipment and the supplies become tighter — and they probably will become a little more ... of issues with supplies because of the numbers going up worldwide — this gives us an opportunity to make sure that we have what we need to get a handle on these ... case clusters that are occurring in some of our communities.”
The governor said that travelers to some other countries are required to have shots before they arrive, in addition to passport and visa requirements.
“So we're not trying to make this difficult for folks to come here,” he said. “We just want to make sure that we are taking care of Alaskans first.”
The state is still working on how the new protocol would work in areas such as procedures at departure airports and overall enforcement.
Dunleavy said the state has two weeks to work on those aspects, and will be announcing specifics later.
“We're working through the process — we've got this two-week window,” Dunleavy said. “At a future press conference, we'll be able to roll out the details along the lines of ... (how) to make sure that folks coming to Alaska do follow these protocols.”
During other portions of the press conference, Dunleavy said there are many people calling for more-severe travel restrictions and statewide mask mandate, and others imploring him not to have mask mandates.
As he’s said in earlier press conferences, Dunleavy reiterated that he doesn’t believe that statewide mandates are needed when some places in Alaska haven’t had COVID-19 cases.
“I know there's a lot of people that would love for me to mandate the masks, or closures, restaurants closures, but it just simply doesn't make sense when you have communities that have never seen the virus and may never see (it). And so again, a surgical approach. That way we can deploy resources if we need. ... to places that have a growing case count.”
Once again citing the recent situations in Southeast Alaska in which the City of Ketchikan debated and declined to approve a local mask mandate, while the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approved the same type of mandate, the governor voiced support for decision-making on such matters at the local level.
Rather than mandates, the state plans to step up its “messaging” on masks and other methods of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, according to Dunleavy, who again asked that Alaskans do what they can in regard to social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings indoors, and minimizing the number of visits to stores and shops.
“This is a big family in Alaska, so I'm asking Alaskans for the next three weeks to do our best,” Dunleavy said.