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Alaska flu cases spike to highest monthly level in years

Flu cases in Alaska soared in January to monthly levels far beyond anything seen in the last four years, according to a report by the state Division of Public Health.

Across the state, 1,279 cases of influenza were confirmed in January, most of them in Anchorage. That’s more than 15 times the number of cases confirmed statewide during the previous month.

The number of flu cases confirmed statewide during the 2018-19 flu season spiked sharply in January, shattering levels seen in previous years. (Alaska Section of Epidemiology)

The influenza A virus is responsible for most of Alaska’s flu cases this season, according to the report issued last week.

Every region in the state saw a dramatic uptick in January, with the spike most pronounced in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Anchorage and the Interior.

In the last four years, the closest Alaska has come to reaching these levels was in March 2018, when flu season peaked at just over 400 confirmed cases statewide.

So far, 1,606 Alaska flu cases have been confirmed since September. The 2017-18 season ended with 6,619 cases confirmed.

“What’s unusual so far this year is it usually sorts of bumps along for a little bit and then it takes off,” said epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale said. This year didn’t follow that pattern, and Castrodale said it’s hard to know why this year skyrocketed so abruptly.

Over the next several weeks, the state will be monitoring whether cases continue increasing rapidly. It’s difficult to predict what the flu virus will do, which makes it hard to forecast the remainder of the season, Castrodale said.

At the Alaska Native Medical Center, providers saw an average of two cases a week in December, said hospital spokeswoman Shirley Young. That jumped to 20 to 30 cases a week in January.

Between Monday and Tuesday, providers at ANMC treated nearly 50 influenza patients within a 24-hour period, Young said.

Anchorage’s two other emergency hospitals, Alaska Regional Hospital and Providence Alaska Medical Center, also reported seeing many more flu cases than usual.

Young said there also has been an increase in the number of people admitted to the hospital for flu, which indicates their symptoms are more severe.

“We are taking steps to educate people on how to stay healthy, such as getting their flu vaccine and performing frequent and thorough hand washing,” she said.

ANMC saw an increase in the number of vaccinations given this year, though plenty of vaccine is still on hand, she said.

All the flu samples tested at the Alaska State Virology Lab have matched so far with this year’s vaccine, according to the state’s report.

Matt Bobo, director of the state’s immunization program, said there is no information yet on how effective this year’s vaccine has been nationwide. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention typically publishes that data around this time of year, he said, but the information has not yet been released.

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