More flu cases expected this year, experts say, but not as many as pre-pandemic

Flu shots.
Flu shots.(WBRC)
Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 8:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Last year, reported cases of influenza were historically low in Alaska. When the population takes numerous steps to mitigate the spread of one contagious respiratory disease, those measures work to combat the spread of most respiratory diseases.

Now that many people are lowering their guard to COVID-19, health care providers are expecting more people to get sick with the flu this year than last. The 2020 flu season was an extremely low bar according to Alaska State Department of Health and Social Services data, which indicated that pubic health mitigation measures may have reduced the number of flu cases, but also found that fewer tests for the flu were likely being performed.

At Alaska Regional Hospital, Infection Prevention Coordinator Jenny Mayo shared some data that shows how much COVID-19 measures lowered flu rates.

“A typical flu season, when we have peaks, we might see 26-30% of patients who test for flu test positive,” Mayo said. “Last year, across the U.S., it was only 0.2% of patients tested for flu who tested positive.”

In the beginning of the pandemic, orders from state and local governments forced people to put up their guards. All the masking, staying home, ordering take out, and everything else almost removed the flu from the equation last year.

It’s not the same now, though. There aren’t as many requirements to stay away from each other and many people are tired of playing it safe.

In Palmer, Dr. April Arseneau is an immunologist at her clinic, Valley Asthma and Allergy Clinic. She said already, she and other providers are beginning to see an increase in non-COVID related illnesses.

“I think a lot of clinics are starting to see some pretty serious upper respiratory tract infections in children and last fall we just didn’t see it as much,” Arseneau said.

In fact, during the summer, Arseneau pointed out that nationwide there were more cases of winter illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus being reported. However, Alaska didn’t see a spike in this disease during that time period, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arseneau said she expects that people relaxed their guard after distribution of COVID-19 vaccines began and people started to get sick with illnesses other than COVID-19.

Influenza can still send someone to the hospital. While hospitals across the state remain filled up and operating under crisis standards of care, Arseneau and Mayo said people should continue to be cautious and avoid filling up beds even more.

Unlike last flu season, there is a vaccine for both the flu and COVID-19, and both Arseneau and Mayo highly encourage people to get their shots.

Many people are getting their flu vaccines from Alaska Regional Hospital. On Oct. 7, the hospital hosted five community flu vaccine clinics. Alaska Regional spokespeople said 1,042 shots were administered during those clinics. There are more flu vaccination clinics at the hospital on Oct. 26 and 28.

Arseneau also pointed out that people can get vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu at the same time with two different shots. It’s more convenient, and completely safe. However, she said folks will still probably have to deal with not feeling so great for a day or so after getting them. She recently did that with her booster shot and said she wasn’t feeling good for about six hours.

Although they are expecting more flu cases this year, Arseneau and Mayo aren’t expecting the numbers to go through the roof, because a lot of people are still practicing safe COVID-19 precautions.

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