Flu season began this month and state health officials said this week that the state's supply of flu vaccine hadn't been affected by the government shutdown.
"There should be an adequate supply of flu vaccine out there for all providers," said Gerri Yett, the immunization program manager for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Efforts to monitor the flu, though, had been crippled by the 16-day shutdown, which came to an end late Wednesday night, sending once-furloughed employers back to the workplace Thursday.
But while Congress battled, no one at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced the weekly surveillance report. Typically, the CDC routinely analyzes data, makes sure that this season's vaccine is working against circulating strains and tracks flu cases in all 50 states. But thousands of its workers were on furlough.
"It's the beginning of the flu season and that's when you want to be able to figure out if you have a good vaccine match," said Bonnie Bond, state virology lab manager in Fairbanks.
Yett said Alaska has ordered 80,500 doses of this season's vaccine for this year's flu season. It's a similar quantity to the 81,950 purchased last year with both state and federal funds.
The federal funds come from the Vaccines for Children Program, which was deemed essential in the shutdown, Yett said. Those funds pay for pediatric vaccines. State funds go toward the immunizations for adults. The vaccines are typically purchased through annual contracts developed by the CDC with manufacturers, she said.
Vaccines come from manufacturers, funnel through the CDC to the state and are dispersed between public health centers, tribal health organizations and private providers, Yett said. Places like hospitals and commercial pharmacies can also choose to purchase vaccines directly from the manufacture and bypass the state middleman. Some order from both.
Anchorage's Department of Health and Human Services ordered about 800 doses from the state and 300 doses directly from the supplier so far this season, according to Sarah Sanderlin, clinical services manager. The state doses come free of cost, but overhead costs like syringes still must be purchased. Operational funds were used to pay for the doses ordered directly.
PROTECTION FROM THE FLU
Dr. Brian Yablon, a state epidemiologist, recommends people vaccinate to protect themselves and the public from the spread of influenza. Each year, the flu comes around in variable degrees that are difficult to predict.
"We know that each year a lot of people get sick with influenza, and we know that each year there are people who die of influenza," he said.
People who receive vaccination are 50 to 70 percent less likely to get the flu.
"If you get the flu, you're more likely to get a milder version," he said.
But, that doesn't mean that Alaskans are sprinting to the nearest clinic with their shirtsleeves rolled up.
In fact, according to a survey conducted by the CDC, only 39.7 percent of Alaska's population over 6 months old were vaccinated for influenza last year. That's low. Idaho had the lowest percent of immunizations at 37.8 percent, and South Dakota the highest at 56.7 percent.
"Overall, we're not doing a really good job," Yett said.
She said many people are worried about immunization costs, availability or think the flu shot will actually give them the disease they're trying to avoid.
"There's a lot of myths out there," Yett said.
There's also a few different types of vaccinations -- one that protects against three different flu strains, one that protects against four; there's a shot and a nasal spray. The CDC does not recommend one vaccine over the other according to its website.
"If you only have one type available, vaccinate with it," Yett said.
Once you get the flu shot, in whatever form, it takes two weeks for immunity, which lasts about a year.
One case of the flu has been reported this month in Anchorage, according Bond. But she's careful to note that this doesn't mean that's the correct count. Physicians are not required to report their flu findings to the state. If a doctor suspects a patient is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, he or she may swab the individual to be certain it's the flu. (Flu symptoms include fever, fatigue, body aches, tiredness or a cough.) A rapid test gives the thumbs up or down right away. Or, a doctor can swab and send it to the Fairbanks lab for further testing.
Bond's lab does at a local level some of what the shutdown had halted on a national level. Both release weekly reports noting where and what types of the flu are circulating
"We're still getting reports out from Alaska," said Louisa Castrodale, state epidemiologist. "How they're crunching all the national numbers -- that's hampered."
The samples arrive at the lab and Bond said they are tested to see if it's influenza A or B and dig further into the subtype if it's Type A.
The lab puts out a weekly surveillance reports detailing flu cases and circulating subtypes.
Only some of the physical samples are sent out, so that the nation has an idea of what's going on in the states, Bond said. "But, we're holding off on that," she said.
Since the shutdown, nothing odd has popped up during testing in Alaska to cause alarm, she said.
The lab has continued sending all of its electronic testing results to the CDC where furloughed employees once regularly received the data.
"Right now I suspect they're all just piling up down there," Bond said about the results.
Reach Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.
By TEGAN HANLON