Alaska News

Alaska’s flu season appears to have peaked. Anchorage’s ‘snowmageddon’ may have helped.

Alaska’s flu cases and hospitalization rates are declining after hitting the state hard this winter, according to a weekly report put out by the Alaska Department of Health.

That report shows a downward curve in cases beginning in mid-December, a potential reprieve from a cold and flu season that began earlier than usual, putting intense pressure on the state’s health care system.

Health officials caution, however, that flu season isn’t over yet.

“It’s possible there could be multiple peaks in a season, and it’s important to note that (influenza) is very much still circulating,” said Eric Mooring, a field officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assigned to the Alaska Section of Epidemiology.

Alaska flu snapshot as of Jan. 11, 2023

State data also indicates a decline in people getting sick enough to need hospital care.

At the peak of influenza-related hospitalizations during the first full week of December, 77 Alaskans were admitted to the hospital. During the first week in January, that number dropped to 32.

It’s possible Anchorage’s back-to-back December snowstorms — dubbed “snowmageddon” by some — contributed to the decline in cases and resulting hospital stays, officials say. The three storms dumped more than 3 feet of snow on the city over 11 days. Bad roads kept people home and closed schools, preventing the spread of infection.

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“It’s certainly a plausible hypothesis,” said Mooring, who is also a lieutenant in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. “The less human contact that happens, the less spread we would expect to see.”

During the snowstorms, pediatrician Dr. Matt Hirschfeld said this week, the number of patients seeking care at Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence Alaska Medical Center dropped, particularly in the pediatric units where he works. But there’s no data to prove any link, Hirschfeld said.

“I think the snowstorms in Anchorage may have actually helped with the surge because it did keep kids out of school — for that almost entire week they were gone,” he said. “And that may have slowed the transmission of RSV and flu.”

The flu, along with the respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, has contributed to a significant rise in hospitalizations around the state this year, especially in pediatric units.

Hirschfeld said the two viruses are hitting different parts of the state unevenly, allowing hospitals to stretch their resources and not become overwhelmed all at once. But that also could mean some regions of the state will still see a surge in upper respiratory illnesses in the coming weeks.

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Alaska’s flu case decline broadly follows a Lower 48 trend of decreasing upper respiratory illnesses in recent weeks, Mooring said.

More than 9,000 cases of influenza have been reported so far in Alaska this season, according to the state health department. That number represents the small proportion of sick people who opted to get tested.

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.

Influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system, nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. Anyone can get the flu, but young children, older adults and those with chronic illnesses are especially vulnerable.

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, Alaska and the country recorded exceptionally mild flu seasons. In 2020, Alaska reported fewer than 100 total influenza cases, fewer than any season in recent history. There was a slight uptick in 2021, but still below pre-pandemic averages.

Mooring and Hirschfeld said it’s not too late to get a flu shot. State data shows that less than a quarter of Alaskans 18 and older are vaccinated against the flu.

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Reporter Annie Berman is a full-time reporter for the Anchorage Daily News covering health care and public health. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter’s salary. It’s up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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