Alaska News

Alaska health department reports ‘dramatic increase’ of flu cases in the state

Alaska’s flu season is here.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is tracking a significant spike in flu activity that started last week, with the biggest surge of cases in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and northern Alaska.

“This is a dramatic increase in influenza activity in Alaska,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska Section of Epidemiology. “Our influenza season is officially here, and we really want to encourage people to get vaccinated.”

The state health department recorded 151 cases of the flu statewide last week, up from 50 cases the week before. The most recent number includes 65 flu cases in Anchorage. Health officials also suspect the flu is behind a big increase in absences at an Anchorage public elementary school.

“The outbreak appears to be predominantly driven by influenza,” McLaughlin said.

[Flu is likely factor in spike in absences at Rogers Park Elementary, officials say]

Wednesday marked the third straight day of a strikingly high number of absences at Rogers Park Elementary School in Midtown Anchorage.

The school enrolls about 500 students. On Wednesday, 269 of them — more than half — didn’t come to school and 13 employees were absent, said Daniel Barker, the district’s director of elementary education.

“It is incredibly significant,” he said. “That is a very large absence.”

While some students miss school in the days leading up to a holiday, Barker said, it’s typically never more than a few dozen.

The school district, however, didn’t have information Wednesday on how many of the Rogers Park students absent were sick and how many missed school to avoid becoming sick or for another reason. Barker said nine of the 13 employees absent were sick.

Barker said he’s hoping students and staff will get better over the four-day school break. District crews will again sanitize the school before classes resume Monday, wiping down everything from door handles to light switches to computer keyboards, he said. Barker also expects the school to hold another flu shot clinic in December.

Rogers Park students’ symptoms have ranged from a fever to body aches to lethargy to headaches to stomachaches to congestion, the school principal wrote in an email to parents this week.

That’s consistent with the flu, McLaughlin said.

The health department also learned through an online survey that 13 ill staff and students from Rogers Park Elementary tested positive for the flu. Ten of them said they had influenza B and the other three weren’t sure which type of flu they had, McLaughlin said.

Influenza B usually comes with the same symptoms and severity as influenza A, McLaughlin said. Influenza B is also behind the statewide uptick in flu cases, and it’s circulating across the country, he said.

That’s unusual. Typically influenza A dominates the beginning of flu season and influenza B follows, McLaughlin said.

“Fortunately Type B influenza is part of the influenza vaccine,” he said.

McLaughlin said it’s impossible to predict the trajectory of Alaska’s flu season. The flu season starts as early as October and can go as late as May, though it’s possible to have the flu any month of the year. It’s an unpredictable illness, McLaughlin said.

He recommended Alaskans get the flu vaccine and practice good hygiene, including washing hands.

McLaughlin also cautioned that the number of flu cases reported by the health department only represents the cases confirmed by a doctor’s visit and a lab test. While the data help health officials establish trends, it doesn’t show with certainty just how widespread the flu really is.

“We’re likely only getting the tip of the iceberg,” McLaughlin said.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.