Sometimes doing the right thing is not easy as Bub Nelson learned when he finally made it back to Alaska in this the year of COVID-19.
After Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced near the end of May that the state was going to replace a 14-day quarantine with testing, the 68-year-old Nelson and his wife headed home thinking they could quickly get a COVID-19 test and return to a somewhat normal life in the 49th state.
Instead, the longtime Alaskan said, it “turned into an adventure down a dead-end road.”
When he arrived in Anchorage on Sunday, Nelson said, he went home and called a First Care Medical Center near his home in South Anchorage. He was told, he said, that a test would be no problem; all he had to do was come and get it.
So Nelson drove to the clinic.
“I walk in the door, and I got slapped on the head,” he said. People getting tested for SARS-CoV-2 are not welcome in medical facilities where they might transmit the virus to someone else – something Nelson did not know.
He retreated to his car as told and waited for First Care staff to come to him. They did, only to tell him “we can’t help you,” he said. “You’re Medicare age.”
Nelson explained he had another primary health insurance policy, but First Care told him he’d have to go get a free test at a Providence Alaska Medical Center drive-through operation on Lake Otis Boulevard in Midtown.
So Nelson drove there only to be told he couldn’t be tested unless he was sick or had a referral from a doctor. Nelson argued that it would be hard to get a doctor’s referral on a Sunday but got nowhere.
He asked if he could get a test if he was treated as a non-Medicare patient and paid the $300 a test costs.
“How about if I pay cash?” he asked. “She said, ‘absolutely not. We’re not set up for that.'”
The Providence staffer did give Nelson a handout with more information and pointed out three numbers to call in order to get an immediate test.
“None of them worked,” Nelson said.
He went home and re-quarantined figuring he’d sort things out on Monday. That proved difficult. Another phone call and visit to First Care the next day ended the same as the visit on Sunday.
“We just gave up,” he said. “We’re staying home. I’m self-quarantining there or driving a dump truck. I stay in the truck.”
He’s using the truck to help his sons with the family excavating and earth-moving business. It’s having its own problems with employees stuck in Arizona and Utah trying to get tested before heading north for Alaska.
Nelson’s biggest concern now is what could happen with many people arriving in Alaska for the summer only to find marginal testing.
Nelson and his wife are avoiding everyone, but there is no real reason to do so other than to be good citizens, he said.
“There’s no one to check on me,” Nelson said. “Nobody knows who I am or where I am or where I came from and that I’m working.”
Signs at the Ted Stevens International Airport tell people that tests or quarantine are mandatory and that people violating the rules could be fined or sent to jail, but there is no apparent enforcement or effort at enforcement.
“It’s pretty hard for somebody who cares to help the system,” Nelson said, which seems to make it too easy for someone who doesn’t care to ignore the rules, especially given that “people are desperate to get back to work.
That could spark more infections, which is what has Nelson worried.
“We’re going to be shut down again if this spikes,” he said, “and I can’t see that anybody is doing anything about it.”
Fifty-six new COVID-19 cases have been reported in the state in the last five days, according to the Alaska Corona Virus Response Hub. It is the biggest jump since mid-March in a state that looked to have the pandemic largely under control.
The possibility that cases will keep increasing could shutdown the Nelson family business, which is already wrestling with COVID-19 issues.
Employees in Utah and Arizona who are trying to get back to Alaska have been unable to get tests in those states because they are not residents, Nelson said. He’s worried that if they come north without getting tested and can’t get tested here, they could end up stuck in quarantine for 14 days.
And if a lockdown follows because of a COVID-19 outbreak?
“It’s dang frustrating because we’re trying,” he said. “We need to keep working. We want these jobs to open back up. Every job is an essential job.”
- Bring with them a “negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within the last 72 hours and present results upon arrival.”
- Or “participate in a COVID-19 PCR test when you arrive in Alaska, and self-quarantine at your expense until results arrive.”
- Or “self-quarantine for 14 days at your expense or the duration of your trip whichever is shorter.”
Nelson believes there should be testing available at the airport.
“That’s the venturi of this thing,” he said.
Aside from some commercial fishermen who sail their boats north, a trickle of traffic on the Alaska Highway and people on ships hauling freight, almost everyone entering the state comes through the Anchorage airport.
Why the state hasn’t set up to test there or somewhere nearby baffles Nelson.
“I love the governor,” he said. “I voted for him. He’s a great guy.
“I feel bad for him because I just think the advice he is getting from the experts is not expert.
“I lay in bed with my wife at night and process this. Just give me the test. I’m willing to pay for it. Just give me the test.”
Nelson admits he’s getting a little tired of going from the house to the dump truck, locking himself in the cab, hauling dirt all day, then going back to the house to lock himself in there.
“I’m quarantined,” he said. “That’s for sure. But it’s pretty dang frustrating. I don’t get it. I volunteered for the test, and I can’t get it.”
“To do the right thing, I’m happy to pay the $300.”
The problem is that it’s impossible to do the right thing if the system stymies it.
Good to be home
Despite all of this, Nelson said, “he’s still happy to be back” in Anchorage, a sleepy city of only about 50,000 when he first saw it in 1973 that has grown into a throbbing urban area on the edge of what is still a vast wilderness.
Jewel Lake is now an integral part of the urban sprawl, not the rural area it was almost 50 years ago when a friend encountered a moose one morning on the drive to work in “town” and shot it. The Jewel Lake area then being open to hunting.
“He dragged it home behind his car,” Nelson said, “and we were eating moose steaks for a long time.”
Anchorage has changed a lot since those days, but it remains close to the free and wild Alaska spirit.
“We were held captive down in America for a couple extra months” is how Nelson described his experiences after the pandemic swept into the U.S. in March.
Early April efforts to get back ran into “unavailable flights and unavailable seats,” he said. The came a state-ordered, mandatory, 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in the state.
“We decided we might as well stay down there,” he said, but by the middle of May, Nelson was rethinking that.
“We finally said we’ve got to get up there,” he said.
It’s been a strange adventure ever since. He admitted it was a little uncomfortable getting on an airplane at his age knowing people over 60 are those most threatened by COVID-19.
“Even if it’s half full, you’re a vulnerable person,” Nelson said. Sitting close to others in an airplane knowing that many people who contract the SARS-CoV-2 turn out to be asymptomatic or don’t display symptoms to indicate they have the disease until days or weeks after they catch it is undeniably unsettling to many people.
Nelson was hoping his stress level would come down once he got home, but so far it doesn’t appear to have worked out that way.