Influenza and other respiratory illnesses are hitting Alaska early this year, raising concerns about a more severe flu and cold season that could put pressure on the state’s hospitals.
The flu typically peaks in the state around December and January, but cases began steadily increasing in Anchorage and Northwest Alaska in late October and are now starting to pick up across most of the state, health officials say.
Alaska, like much of the Lower 48, is seeing an increase in early flu cases this season, according to Carrie Edmonson, a nurse epidemiologist with DHSS who helps put out the state’s weekly influenza bulletin.
The bulletin, which has data through Nov. 5, shows more flu activity around the state by this time of year than is typical by mid-November.
“It’s really important for people to be aware of that influenza activity is occurring early this year,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s top epidemiologist. “And for folks who haven’t yet gotten their flu vaccine, now is a very good time to get it.”
So far this flu season approximately one in 10 Alaskans have opted to get their shots, Edmonson said.
“Our vaccination rates are lower than normal, and I think a lot of that has to do with people being so overwhelmed with the COVID vaccine and other vaccines,” she said.
Worldwide, the flu has been making its way through the Southern Hemisphere — which experiences a flu season first — with more gusto than in recent years.
Here, health officials say it’s likely masking and other pandemic-related precautions led to lower numbers of flu and cold cases over the past two years, so it’s not surprising that case reports might be higher this season.
For the last two years of the pandemic, exceptionally mild flu seasons have been recorded in Alaska and nationwide. In 2020 Alaska reported under 100 total influenza cases, fewer than any season in recent history. There was a slight uptick in 2021, but still below pre-pandemic averages.
As the pandemic and precautions associated with COVID-19 waned, an increase in flu was expected, Edmonson said.
Influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system, the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. Anyone can get the flu, but young children, older adults and those with chronic illnesses are especially vulnerable.
As many as 36,000 Americans die each year of complications of influenza and more than 200,000 are hospitalized. Last flu season, nine influenza-related deaths were reported in Alaska, according to the state health department.
Influenza isn’t the only respiratory illness to worry about this year especially, according to McLaughlin. Alaska is seeing higher than normal rates of hospitalization among both adults and children due to a number of respiratory viruses circulating now, including respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, as well as enteroviruses and rhinoviruses that cause the common cold, he said this week.
“These are viruses that typically come around every flu and cold season and cause the common cold in kids and in adults, but we’re seeing really high levels of both of those types of viruses right now, in Alaska and nationally,” McLaughlin said.
RSV is is a common respiratory virus that typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms. It can sometimes be serious, especially for infants and older adults, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hospitals around the country have seen a surge in pediatric RSV patients in recent weeks, with some reporting maxed out capacity and seriously ill children.
The Alaska Hospital Association is closely monitoring hospital intake for signs of RSV among pediatric patients in particular, Jared Kosin, president of the Alaska Hospital Association said this week. So far, he said, patient volumes aren’t as high as what’s being seen in the Lower 48, but that could change as Alaska’s health trends tend to lag behind those in other states.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and prevention recommends that most Americans older than 6 months get their flu shot by the end of October, which is typically when the flu season begins to take off.
Around Alaska, private-sector doses of the vaccine are available in pharmacies around the state and are available for free with insurance. You can visit the state health department’s website to find a nearby public health center that’s distributing the flu vaccine.
Edmonson encouraged Alaskans who had not gotten their flu shots yet to consider it, particularly those who are higher risk due to their age or health.
“If you haven’t had the flu in the last couple years, you don’t have the antibodies and so getting vaccinated is definitely your best way of having a less severe flu if you do get it,” she said.
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