Analysis suggests Alaska's airport traveler testing program helped limit COVID-19 spread

Analysis suggests Alaska's airport traveler testing program helped limit COVID-19 spread

April 23, 2021

Alaska’s testing and quarantine requirements for air travelers, started in June 2020, may have limited #COVID19 brought into the state and contributed to the state’s low case numbers last summer, according to an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). The findings were published April 22 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

To reduce traveler-related introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into Alaska, the state instituted a traveler testing program in June 2020. Travelers could be tested within 72 hours before arrival or on arrival or could quarantine for 14 days without testing. Pretravel testing was encouraged. The Alaska DHSS used weekly standardized reports submitted by 10 participating Alaska airports to evaluate air traveler choices to undergo testing or self-quarantine, traveler test results, and airport personnel experiences while implementing the program.

Among 386,435 air travelers who arrived in Alaska during June 6–November 14, 2020, a total of 184,438 (48%) chose to be tested within 72 hours before arrival, 111,370 (29%) chose to be tested on arrival, and 39,685 (10%) chose to self-quarantine without testing after arrival. An additional 15,112 persons received testing at airport testing sites; these were primarily travelers obtaining a second test 7–14 days after arrival, per state guidance.

SARS-CoV-2 testing on arrival in Alaska airports identified 951 SARS-CoV-2 infections, or one per 406 arriving travelers, and might have contributed to Alaska’s low incidence during the summer by reducing opportunities for community transmission at travelers’ destination locations. The percentage of test results that were positive at airports was consistently lower than the overall percentage in Alaska.

Airport testing program administrators reported that clear communication, preparation, and organization were vital for operational success; challenges included managing travelers’ expectations and ensuring that sufficient personnel and physical space were available to conduct testing.

The findings suggest posttravel self-quarantine and testing programs might reduce travel-associated SARS-CoV-2 transmission and importation, even without enforcement. Traveler education and community and industry partnerships might help ensure success.

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