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Clinic officials urge Unalaskans not to get retested amid COVID-19 testing shortage

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Laura Kraegel
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KUCB
As of Monday, the city reported a total of 122 active cases of the coronavirus on the island – 88 of those are community-acquired. This is the highest number of cases among community members since the start of the pandemic.

Unalaska’s clinic is out of its most efficient COVID-19 test kits, prompting health officials to recommend against retesting for island residents who test positive with at-home kits.

The clinic is now relying exclusively on PCR tests – the Abbott ID Now – which are more “laborious” to run than Cepheid tests that were previously used, said Medical Director Dr. Megan Sarnecki.

That’s led to slowdowns with getting people tested, since the Abbott swabs are also only good for one hour after testing a patient. But the Cepheid tests have a longer shelf-life, according to Sarnecki, which means clinic staff can swab around 50 people per hour, those tests can pile up, and then the lab can process them later.

“Or 100 plus, as we did sometimes for boats,” she said.

The PCR tests require a lot of extra work from staff both in scheduling and swabbing, according to Sarnecki.

She said staff have been working with private businesses to order the much more efficient Cepheid tests for weeks, but they still haven’t arrived. She said she got word they finally shipped out Monday.

The state of Alaska was previously supplying Cepheid tests, but has stopped.

Sarnecki said people who test positive on a home or antigen test should not retest at the clinic. That’s because positive antigen tests where there’s a high rate of COVID transmission – like in Unalaska – are very likely true positives and do not need to be repeated.

Also, if residents have had a positive result and think they need a test to be negative before leaving isolation, Sarnecki said that’s not true.

PCR tests often remain positive for weeks after someone is contagious. The CDC asks that you isolate for five days, then wear a mask around all others for five days after testing positive for COVID. After 10 days, if you have no fever for 24 hours and you are improving, you are no longer contagious, according to the CDC guidance.

As of Monday, the city reported a total of 122 active cases of the coronavirus on the island – 88 of those are community-acquired. This is the highest number of cases among community members since the start of the pandemic.

It’s unclear how many test kits the Oonalaska Wellness Center has on hand. The clinic, run by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, has not responded to a request for comment.

Correction: A previous version of this story said 50 Cepheid tests can be processed at once. It's actually 18 tests per hour.

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