Alaska’s flu season continues to worsen, epidemiology reports show

a flu vaccine shot
Lalain Reyeg administers a COVID-19 booster vaccine and an influenza vaccine to Army veteran Gary Nasakaitis at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital on September 24, 2021, in Hines, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Alaska’s flu season is worsening with no signs of leveling off, the latest surveillance report from the Alaska Department of Health showed on Wednesday.

This week, the Anchorage Daily News reported that unusually high rates of flu and respiratory syncytial virus are filling pediatric units at hospitals across the state, and the weekly flu report indicates no change in the situation.

“Based on this week’s flu snapshot, you can see that the rate is still going up precipitously, and there’s no sign of it leveling off,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist.

This season is unusually early and hard-hitting by historical standards; Alaska’s flu season typically runs from October through May, peaking in February, but the number of laboratory-confirmed flu cases began rising in late October and has already passed the February 2019 peak of the last pre-pandemic flu season.

This week’s national flu-tracking report has yet to be published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but as late as last week, the CDC rated Alaska’s influenza level as “low” compared to other states, another sign that conditions here may worsen before they improve.

“We know that the influenza infection rates were the highest early on in the Southeastern part of the United States,” McLaughlin said, “and then they gradually made their way westward and northward. We are the furthest west and the furthest northern state in the United States, and so it could be that the worst of the flu season is still ahead of us.”

If there is positive news, McLaughlin said, it’s that this year’s flu vaccine appears to be a good match for the most commonly circulating strains of flu.

“That means if you’ve been vaccinated, your chances of getting influenza infection — if you’re exposed — go down. And then if you do wind up getting a breakthrough infection, you’re typically going to get a milder infection that’s going to last a shorter period of time, and it will be associated with lower risk of hospitalization and death,” McLaughlin said.

Alaska’s flu vaccination dashboard, published by the Department of Health, shows only 20% of Alaska residents at least 18 years old have been vaccinated for the flu this year.

“We’re currently seeing very low rates of vaccination against influenza, as well as the COVID booster. And we are still seeing a lot of hospitalizations, and unfortunately, many preventable deaths due to COVID across the nation,” McLaughlin said.

He said that antiviral medicines are available with a prescription if someone is infected, but prevention is still important, particularly during the holidays.

He advises skipping holiday parties if you’re feeling ill and using the methods that worked during the COVID pandemic — wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding people who are sick.

“Fortunately, our COVID rates are much lower now than they were last holiday season. So that’s a really good thing. But we do still have lots of other respiratory pathogens circulating, and we have very high hospitalization rates, especially among children. So it is going to continue to be important during this holiday season for people to remain vigilant and protective and try to do what they can to protect themselves and their loved ones from getting a respiratory infection,” he said.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Previous articleAnchorage state House recount doesn’t change outcome, as Republican incumbent McKay keeps lead 
Next articleAnchorage schools close for a third straight day following major snowstorm