More influenza has been detected in Alaska so far this season than in any of the previous five years, according to a weekly flu snapshot report put out by the Alaska Department of Health.
That report shows a steep upward curve, illustrating an unusually bad cold and flu season that began earlier than usual and has sickened both children and adults, putting intense pressure on the state’s health care system.
Based on Lower 48 trends, Alaska’s flu cases are likely to continue to rise before they start to drop, Alaska’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Joe McLaughlin said Friday. He said it wasn’t clear when cases here would peak.
More than 5,000 cases of influenza have been reported so far in Alaska, according to the state health department. That number represents just the small proportion of sick people who opted to get tested, McLaughlin said.
Two Alaskans have died so far this season from influenza, he said. Last flu season, nine influenza-related deaths were reported in Alaska, according to the state health department.
The flu typically peaks around January, but cases in Alaska started rising in late October, earlier than usual, with similar early increases reported around the Lower 48.
This year’s most common strain, H3N2, is now being detected in communities all around the state. This strain has historically been linked to higher hospitalization rates and more severe illness, McLaughlin 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.
The flu, along with respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, has contributed to a significant rise in hospitalizations around the state, with pediatric units being hit especially hard.
Alaska Regional Hospital’s emergency room and inpatient units that treat respiratory illnesses was operating “at or near capacity” this week in Anchorage due to increases in flu, RSV, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, hospital spokeswoman Kjerstin Lastufka said in an email.
“It’s important for the community to know that we have plans in place to deal with these surges and we are still available to deliver care,” Lastufka wrote.
The state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, this week continued to report a surge of patients, and “at times the wait continues to be long in the emergency department,” hospital spokesman Mikal Canfield said in an email.
Canfield said that no surgeries were being delayed or rescheduled at this time due to high patient volumes.
Nationally, the flu season has been historically bad so far this year. In the week after Thanksgiving, more than 34,000 positive flu tests were reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s more positive flu tests than have been reported in any single week during any flu season on record since at least 1997.
A caveat to this data is that testing rates for influenza might be higher than they were pre-pandemic. COVID-19 may have normalized testing for illnesses and prompted more people to get tested, McLaughlin said.
In Alaska, 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 have been higher this year.
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.
McLaughlin on Friday encouraged Alaskans to get both their flu shot and bivalent COVID-19 booster as a way of protecting both themselves and hospital capacity. This year’s flu vaccine appears to be “a good match” for the currently circulating strain, he added.
While COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are currently low in Alaska, there’s been a 25% increase nationwide in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the last two weeks, McLaughlin said.
“The lessons that we learned during COVID are also applicable during influenza,” he said. “Stay away from others when you’re sick.”