It’s been more than a month since the Haines Borough began offering free COVID-19 testing for people entering the community from elsewhere in Alaska, and as of Sept. 22, five people have taken advantage of the program. More than 1,100 travelers came to Haines during the first month of the program.

Earlier this summer, the Haines Borough Assembly set aside $50,000 in CARES Act funds to make testing more widely available to those entering Haines.

Currently, the borough recommends that anyone traveling to Haines either quarantine for 14 days or go through a two-tiered testing process similar to the one required for people entering Alaska from out of state.

During assembly discussion of CARES Act fund disbursement, members explained borough-funded testing would allow travelers to more readily comply with the borough’s testing recommendation by filling a gap between the state’s testing program for out-of-state travelers and the free, weekend testing offered by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC). The borough-funded tests would allow a traveler from Juneau or Anchorage arriving in town on a Tuesday to get tested immediately, instead of having to wait for the weekend.

The borough finalized an agreement with SEARHC and began offering the tests on Aug. 10.

In the first month of the program, just over 500 passengers arrived in Haines on Alaska Seaplanes flights and 695 people arrived via the ferry. Only a fraction of these travelers got tested.

Between Aug. 10 and Sept. 10, SEARHC administered 193 free weekend tests in Haines, 42 tests in Klukwan and one test through the borough-funded program. The one borough-funded test was administered to a person who traveled from Juneau to Haines.

Borough officials said the program’s lack of utilization may be influenced by the availability of free weekend tests through SEARHC.

“When we conceived of (the program), it was before SEARHC was doing asymptomatic testing,” borough clerk and interim manager Alekka Fullerton said, adding that SEARHC’s program may be more appealing because it requires fewer steps than the borough’s.

SEARHC’s weekend testing is open to anyone who shows up at the clinic Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. or Sundays between noon and 2 p.m., and fills out a very short form.

In contrast, the borough’s program requires emailing the Haines Emergency Operations Center (EOC), or calling the borough, to request a voucher. Once the EOC provides the voucher, the traveler is encouraged to contact SEARHC to schedule a test. Borough-funded tests are offered Monday through Thursday at 10 a.m.

EOC incident commander Carolann Wooton said the borough has used a variety of methods to advertise its program including Facebook and the borough website. She said the borough has plans to advertise through news outlets as well.

Despite advertisements, some in-state travelers said they’d never heard of the borough-funded testing program.

“I would have taken advantage of it if I’d known,” said Jon Hirsh, who returned to Haines on Tuesday, Sept. 8 after traveling to the Anchorage area. Hirsh said he waited until Saturday to get tested during SEARHC’s weekend testing hours.

Limited testing times may be another reason the borough-funded program is seeing little use.

Jane Pascoe said she learned of the program from a friend the evening she returned to Haines. Pascoe called the borough the following morning. She said the first borough employee she spoke with wasn’t aware of the program’s existence. Pascoe later spoke to another employee who set the record straight. Pascoe received her test voucher after 10 a.m. on Thursday, so she opted to get a weekend test from SEARHC rather than wait until the following Monday.

Borough staff are brainstorming other ways to get the word out about the tests.

Fullerton said one possibility could involve posting signs at Alaska Seaplanes and the ferry terminal, notifying travelers of the borough’s quarantine and testing recommendations, and providing contact information for the EOC. Fullerton said although this project has been on her to-do list, so far, she and staff have been busy with other projects like the administration of CARES Act-funded grant programs. Fullerton is currently working as the borough clerk, interim borough manager and EOC public relations person.

In-state travelers who wish to receive a free test can request a voucher by emailing [email protected] and can schedule an appointment with SEARHC by calling 766-6300.