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Alaska News

Alaska coronavirus Q&A: How do current hospitalization rates compare to an average flu season?

  • Author: Annie Berman
  • Updated: January 20
  • Published January 19

Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, photographed December 24, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Part of a continuing series.

We’re continuing to answer readers’ virus and vaccine-related questions. Have a question of your own? Ask it in the form at the bottom of this article.

How do current hospitalization rates compare to rates during an average flu season?

On a state level, hospital use has never been tracked as closely as it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Anna Frick, a state epidemiologist, during a recent call with members of the state public health team. However, it is clear that Alaska hospitals are currently seeing far fewer people with the flu than they have in previous years, she said.

That’s likely because many people are social distancing, washing their hands and gathering less — behaviors that make it harder to spread and contract the flu as well as the coronavirus.

The state public health team is continuing to track the percentage of all hospital patients who are there with a COVID-19 infection. That number helps show the relative impact of COVID-19 on the state’s hospitals, which are are always particularly busy this time of the year, according to Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.

As of Wednesday, that percentage was just over 7%, much lower than was during a peak in November and early December, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services data dashboard. In November, as case counts rose, a key concern was hospital staffing shortages driven by an already-stretched number of staff getting infected or exposed to the virus.

Zink added on the call that she has seen an overall decrease since March in non-COVID-related hospital visits at the Mat-Su emergency department where she works. That’s a trend that is happening nationwide, too, for a variety of reasons.

“People are really nervous to go into the emergency department,” Zink said.

As a result, many nonemergency medical visits are now being done remotely via telehealth, she said.

That shift to virtual medical visits has also been a way to keep hospital resources open to those who really need it, added Dr. Liz Ohlsen, a physician with the state health department.

“One of the things that we’ve done during this pandemic is find ways to make sure that people get really good care at home in many cases,” she said. “Or find other ways to try and not have as many people hospitalized.”

Alaska does track the number of influenza deaths each year. Last flu season, there were 11 Alaskans who died, Zink said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the state in March, over 220 Alaskans who contracted the virus have died.

How is the state making sure that only those eligible to receive the vaccine are getting shots?

Enrolled COVID-19 vaccine providers are required to sign a form saying they will confirm eligibility with each person requesting vaccine, explained Tessa Walker Linderman, who helps run the state’s vaccine task force.

Walker Linderman said that at a recent vaccine clinic she attended, there were some people who were turned away because they were not health care workers or older than 65.

Generally, though, the system is set up to rely on Alaskans’ truthfulness.

“We are really asking Alaskans to honestly assess their own eligibility, and we are seeing that people are being honest, but some aren’t,” she said.

Walker Linderman said the team decided not to require more extensive proof of eligibility because they didn’t want too many barriers that could cause eligible people to get turned away because they were missing the right paperwork.

“It’s a balance,” she said.

Are fully vaccinated individuals at risk for asymptomatic infection and able to spread the virus to others?

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, a state epidemiologist, said Wednesday there is still not enough data on whether the available COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna protect against asymptomatic spread of the virus. The vaccines were designed to protect against severe illness from the virus, and that’s what they’ve been proven in numerous clinical trials to do.

Mild infections and asymptomatic spread is still a possibility, which is why those who are vaccinated are encouraged to continue wearing a mask in public and keeping up with other personal virus mitigation efforts, he said.

“As soon as we do have more information from CDC and others, we will relay that to you,” McLaughlin said.

Has vitamin D deficiency been linked to higher risk for infection and more virulent illness if infected? Is that a particular concern for Alaskans?

The research on whether vitamin D insufficiency puts people at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 (or a more severe infection from the virus) is inconclusive, McLaughlin said. But getting enough vitamin D is still very important, he said.

“The bottom line is we want to make sure people aren’t vitamin D deficient,” he said. The research does show that adequate levels are important to bone health, and really underscores the importance of avoiding vitamin D deficiency, he said.

Some Alaskans should consider adding supplemental vitamin D to their diets, according to state health guidance.

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