Respiratory virus cases are filling hospital beds in Alaska

The Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Respiratory viruses have been threatening hospital capacity in Alaska this winter. Dr. Matt Hirschfeld, a pediatrician with Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, said flu and RSV cases started spiking early this year, in October. 

“Usually, we don’t see these things start to peak until kind of December, January, February,” Hirschfeld said. “And then it’s also an extremely steep graph, meaning that a lot of people are getting infected all at once.”

At the same time, other viruses like parainfluenza, metapneumovirus and common colds are circulating too.

“It’s kind of a big soup of viruses that are happening out there,” he said.

Dr. Matt Hirschfeld poses in front of the Alaska Native Medical Center
Dr. Matt Hirschfeld poses for a photo on Oct. 7, 2021, in front of the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Hirschfeld said this year’s cold and flu season has been worse, in part because COVID precautions were keeping people separated and keeping viruses at bay the last few years. 

Most people get RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, as children, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get it again as an adult. RSV and flu both have the strongest impacts on young children and elderly people.

State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms.

“Most people recover within a week or two, but it can cause serious illness especially for infants and older adults,” he said.

Serious cases typically present with wheezing or difficulty breathing, due to inflammation of small airways in the lungs.

Late last week Hirschfeld said pediatric hospital capacity in Anchorage was close to its limits.

“ANMC had a couple of beds, Providence was totally full. And most of the other hospitals had one or two beds or they were completely full,” he said.

Hirschfeld added that the majority of his patients live in rural Alaska and were transferred into the city for more specialized care.

Meanwhile, a nationwide shortage of amoxicillin, a type of antibiotic drug, is also affecting Alaska. State pharmacist Coleman Cutchins said the shortage is being driven by increased demand for the drug, not a manufacturing issue.

Amoxicillin shouldn’t be used to treat viral illnesses, but it can be prescribed for bacterial pneumonia and some ear infections, which tend to surge around cold and flu season.

Cutchins said it’s possible the amoxicillin shortage is in part due to it being overprescribed for patients who don’t need it.

“I haven’t heard of it not being available for people that totally need it. And there are alternatives,” Cutchins said. “But as we think about things in short supply, it’d be better to prevent yourself from being sick, to prevent the burden and the need for this type of drugs.”

RSV has already peaked on the East Coast and epidemiologists are predicting Alaska is close to plateauing as well. But in the meantime health officials are urging Alaskans to get flu shots and COVID boosters, practice regular hand-washing and stay home from gatherings if any symptoms arise.

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.

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