Getting a flu shot this year is particularly important, state health officials said last week.
That’s because a large outbreak of influenza — a life-threatening respiratory illness that shares many of the same traits as COVID-19 — could put further stress the state’s fragile health care system, they said.
“We talk a lot about healthcare capacity, and I think COVID has really shed a light on how tight our health care capacity is,” said Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s top doctor, on a call this week. “Getting your flu shot can help make sure those (hospital) beds are available when we really do need them.”
In Alaska in a typical year, about 44% of the population gets vaccinated against the latest strains of influenza, said Matt Bobo, an immunization program director with the state. That’s just slightly below the national average of 45.3%.
This year, Bobo said, the state ordered far more doses of the vaccine than normal. Once both state and private supplies of the vaccine are factored in, up to two thirds of the Alaska’s population will be able to vaccinated this year.
“It’s the most we have ever had,” he said. “What we’re hoping this year is that people will really be more inclined to get the flu vaccine.”
Ramping up for this year’s flu season has happened on a larger scale, as well.
Usually, the CDC purchases about 500,000 doses for uninsured adults. This year, they ordered over 9 million.
“Getting a flu vaccine this fall will be more important than ever,” the department explained in an FAQ on their website, “Not only to reduce your risk from flu but also to help conserve potentially scarce health care resources.”
The first doses of this season’s influenza vaccine have recently become available in pharmacies and clinics across the state.
Mid-September through October is the ideal time to get vaccinated, Bobo said.
That’s because the antibodies your body creates when you receive the vaccine start to decrease after a few months.
“What we want to do is time the vaccine in such a way that people still have high antibody levels for the duration of flu season,” explained Bobo.
In Alaska, flu season begins as early as October and can extend all the way to May.
Getting a flu shot this year can also help prevent the possibility of getting coinfected with both the coronavirus and the flu at the same time, which can happen, said Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state.
Preliminary research has shown that the flu can weaken patients’ immune systems, leaving them more susceptible to more severe illness from COVID-19.
Some doctors also worry that coming down with both viruses at once could be deadly, especially for older patients and those who are higher risk for severe illness from either.
Zink said she recommends that anyone who is experiencing flu-like symptoms — including fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue — get tested for the coronavirus.
There are some tests that can even check for both illnesses, she said.
Although influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, there are a few key differences.
They are caused by different viruses, and there are some symptoms that are unique to the coronavirus, like loss of taste or smell. The coronavirus has also been found to be more of a superspreader than the flu, and so far seems to be deadlier.
The last flu season in both Alaska and across the country was mild. But it still sent over 740,000 people nationwide to the hospital, and resulted in somewhere between 24,000 and 62,000 deaths, according to preliminary CDC data.
In less than eight months, the novel coronavirus had been linked to more than twice that number of deaths in the US: more than 174,000.
Until there’s a vaccine widely available for the novel coronavirus, Zink said the best thing Alaskans can do is focus on staying healthy, which includes getting a flu shot.
“The more we can keep ourselves healthy and active and out of the hospital, we can keep those beds open,” she said.
[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]