Last year’s flu season in Alaska was milder than previous seasons, and was “abruptly” shortened by the arrival of the coronavirus in the spring, according to a report released Wednesday by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Local cases of the viral respiratory infection were detected slightly earlier than usual last fall, and peaked around the holidays, according to the report. In April, when Alaskans began hunkering down, influenza transmission slowed.
Between October 2019 and May 2020, the flu killed 11 Alaskans, including three children between 1 and 6 years old, the report said.
This was a significant drop from the previous season, when 18 people in Alaska died with influenza, including two young children.
The latest report also included a strong recommendation to all health care providers to annually vaccinate their patients older than 6 months against the newest strains of influenza by the end of October.
Nationwide and in Alaska, health officials have said getting your flu shot this year is particularly important. They say that’s because it could protect the state’s health care system from being overwhelmed with a “twindemic” of both COVID-19 and influenza, and could conserve hospital beds and resources for those sickened with coronavirus, which has so far killed 45 Alaskans since March.
There is also the added possibility of contracting both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.
“We’re really doing everything we can to promote the flu vaccine this year,” said Joe McLaughlin, chief epidemiologist with the state, on a call Wednesday. “We’ve got more flu vaccine than we’ve had in many, many years for Alaskans, and now is the time to start getting vaccinating."
On the same call, Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said her team recently began tracking how flu vaccine distribution has been going so far in-state, and that the results have been mixed.
“So far we’ve seen a lot of vaccine uptick by those 65 years and older," she said. “Unfortunately younger groups, particularly kids below the age of 10, are way behind this year for flu vaccine. And flu kills kids,” she said. "So we really need to make sure those kids are getting vaccinated and getting protected.”
Getting a flu shot this year should be easy. Private-sector doses of the vaccine are available in pharmacies around the state and are available for free with insurance.
Because the state has so much of the vaccine this year, all adults in Alaska can get a free vaccine even without insurance through a provider that offers state-supplied vaccines.
You can visit the state health department’s website to find a public health center near you that’s distributing the flu vaccine.
In Anchorage, the local school district announced Tuesday that students will be able to get free vaccines, and they’ll also be hosting a series of community clinics in coming weeks where anyone can come to get a free flu shot.
McLaughlin said he is hopeful that this year’s flu season will be mild. He’s heartened by what he’s observed so far in parts of the world that experience their flu season before the United States does.
“What we know from the Southern Hemisphere over the last year is they had a mild flu season,” McLaughlin said. “And that’s likely because of all the community mitigation efforts that went in place during the COVID pandemic, which basically made for a pretty mild season.”
Individual efforts put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus — like hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing — also work to decrease incidence of the flu, he explained.
“So if we get a lot of people vaccinated, and people keep up with community mitigation efforts, hopefully it will be a flu season with fewer cases than previous seasons,” he said.