Two rapid antigen tests for COVID-19. Health officials say they’ll soon be available for free in communities across Alaska. (Creative Commons image by Lennardywlee)

Free at-home COVID-19 rapid tests will soon be available to households in Alaska. Public health officials say it’s another layer of protection for those worried about spreading COVID-19 to vulnerable relatives around the holidays.


White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently seemed to mock the idea of the federal government supplying its citizens with rapid at-home COVID-19 tests. Here she is speaking on Dec. 6, touting a Biden administration initiative to force health insurance companies to reimburse consumers for over-the-counter rapid tests.

“…150 million Americans will be able to get free tests,” Psaki said. That’s when NPR’s White House correspondent Mara Liasson interjected.

“That’s kind of complicated, though — why not just make them free and give them out and have them available anywhere?” Liasson asked.

“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki replied.

That’s nearly what public health officials in Alaska are trying to do here. Soon, free at-home tests will be freely available around the state to anyone who wants one.

“We did receive some antigen at home test kits, they do come, you know, two kits to a box, super convenient, you have test results in 10 minutes,” state public health nurse manager Jen Bergen said Friday. She says they’re “super convenient for folks that are going to be traveling to large gatherings, or they’re symptomatic.”

They haven’t arrived in Ketchikan yet, at least not for the general public, but nurses at Ketchikan Public Health Center are currently using them to screen people in high-risk settings like shelters and nursing homes.

Bergen says the health center is expecting another shipment of tests in the next two weeks. When those arrive, they’ll be freely available (within reason) at Ketchikan Public Health Center: two kits per household, at least at first.

Ketchikan Mayor Dave Kiffer announced on social media Friday evening that the city would join the effort and start distributing test kits at fire stations starting Monday, December 13.

Each package contains two rapid tests. If the first one is negative, Bergen says you’re supposed to take the second at least 24 to 36 hours later.

“You really do need two negatives to be sure that you’re good and don’t have COVID,” she said.

Rapid testing isn’t a foolproof way of keeping COVID-19 out of holiday gatherings. Bergen says ideally, they’re another layer of protection on top of other methods: wearing masks, getting vaccinated and limiting the size of gatherings. But she says it’s also a convenient layer of protection for people who might be less willing to take other precautions.

“This is a great way to, kind of, compromise. Families are dynamic. They all have different viewpoints and reasonings behind their actions, so this is a great way to, you know — ‘I’m not really comfortable getting vaccinated, but I will test before I come and visit.’” she said.

The tests are funded by a state grant and have already started showing up in other communities.

“This is a statewide program, so you’re going to start seeing most communities offer this. And it’s being done differently in each community — some communities like Petersburg, where you’re seeing them given out at the local library, it’s really at wherever there’s capacity, and then high flow of people that might actually come and get them,” she said.

Health officials at Craig Public Health Center on Prince of Wales Island say they are already distributing the kits freely: two per household. City officials in Juneau this month have been handing out free test kits at public libraries and rec centers. They’re also available in Sitka, and local officials say they’ll be available in Haines soon.

Here’s where Mayor Dave Kiffer says Ketchikan’s fire department will start distributing at-home test kits on Monday, Dec. 13:

  • City Fire Station 1 (70 Bawden St) and Station 2 (3352 Tongass Ave)
  • South Tongass Volunteer Fire Department Station 4 (5690 Roosevelt Dr)
  • North Tongass Volunteer Fire Department Station 8 (13110 North Tongass Hwy)

According to Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Clinton Bennett, rapid tests are available or will be available soon at public health centers in the following communities:

  • Juneau
  • Ketchikan
  • Sitka
  • Craig
  • Valdez
  • Petersburg
  • Mat-Su
  • Fairbanks
  • Kenai
  • Kodiak
  • Delta Junction
  • Bethel
  • Homer
  • Tok
  • Dillingham

Additionally, “some places, like Nome, have health care staff coordinating with local partners on availability at several community locations,” Bennett said.

Wrangell Fire Captain Dorianne Sprehe says the borough is in discussions about making free rapid tests available, but she said she was unable to say when they’d be available to the public.

Haines Borough Clerk Alekka Fullerton says the borough has ordered a pallet of rapid tests, and they’re expected in town “any day.” She says they’ll be distributed at the Haines admin building.

In Skagway, the director of the municipally-run Dahl Memorial Clinic said she had no knowledge of the at-home testing program and said she’d ask state officials to include the clinic in the program. Executive Director Estelita Fielding noted that the at-home antigen tests would not replace testing for international travel, which requires polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT).