Vehicles drive past a sign advertising free flu shots near Fred Meyer on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Health officials advise that Alaskans should get the widely available vaccinations to prevent over-burdening hospitals as the COVID-19 pandemic and annual flu epidemic are poised to collide. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Vehicles drive past a sign advertising free flu shots near Fred Meyer on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Health officials advise that Alaskans should get the widely available vaccinations to prevent over-burdening hospitals as the COVID-19 pandemic and annual flu epidemic are poised to collide. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Alaska readies for flu season as COVID pandemic continues

The symptoms of both can be very similar.

As America struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic and deaths crest 200,000, Alaska prepares itself for a regular visitor in the winter months — influenza.

“What we know from the southern hemisphere is that they had a mild flu season,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist, in a news conference via Zoom on Thursday. “We’re hoping that that will be the case in the northern hemisphere as well.”

Influenza and the coronavirus have a number of similar symptoms, including fever, fatigue, cough, aches, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the flu has not traditionally caused the loss of taste or smell as the coronavirus has. That’s not a hard and fast rule, however, and there’s very little to separate the two without a test beyond that, said McLaughlin.

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“Really, no. There is no way (to differentiate them),” McLaughlin said. “If you get a patient who has classic COVID systems, and they have loss of taste and smell, that’s something you don’t see in the flu.”

And, of course, a person could catch both at once.

“You can get a co-infection,” McLaughlin said. “You can have COVID and the flu at the same time.”

The flu is less lethal to most, but capable of spreading much more quickly than the coronavirus, according to the CDC.

“Every winter we have a seasonal influenza epidemic. We will have two two epidemics on our hands. We will have the COVID pandemic and the seasonal influenza epidemic,” McLaughlin said. “Influenza tends to hit the very old and the very young the hardest.”

The rapid spread of the flu makes it dangerous to any large group of people in a confined space.

“I think we’ve made our hospitals and nursing homes as safe as possible,” said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “We’re going into the busiest time of the year for the hospitals. We’re going into flu season trying to be as mindful as possible and adapt.”

The best way to prevent free-wheeling outbreaks of the flu is keeping to the same mitigation measures that are in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, as well as getting easily accessible vaccinations for influenza.

“We really need people with symptoms not to go to work or school,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. “The way we keep workplaces open, the way we keep schools open, is to get tested. Remember, we’re against the virus, not each other.”

Wearing a mask, maintaining distance, getting the influenza vaccine, and avoiding unnecessary social contact are all measures that will reduce risk of both influenza and the coronavirus.

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“We want everyone who’s able to get a flu vaccine to get it before the end of October,” Zink said. “We know that the morbidity and mortality for influenza is very problematic. Anyone over six months old, you need to make a plan to get a flu vaccine before the end of October.”

Influenza can be dealt with with reasonable effectiveness, but Alaska’s health care professionals still harbor deep concerns about the coronavirus as winter comes to Alaska.

“I am concerned about the fall and winter,” Zink said. “We don’t have the same outdoor activity options the colder it gets.”

Regions of the Lower 48 , including the East Coast, the South and the Midwest, all suffered spikes, followed by reduced confirmed cases. But those rates are climbing back up, Zink said. Alaska’s isolation from the Lower 48 has proved no shield to that rate of infection.

“I am concerned we saw the Lower 48 tick back up again and what that means for us,” Zink said. “We’re right about the median for cases per 100,000 people with the Lower 48. Half the states in the Lower 48 have less cases per 100,000 than we do.”

But if Alaskans will stick to masking up, distancing and remaining vigilant, the state can weather the storm handily, McLaughlin said.

“Any time we see an uptick in cases, we’re concerned. Do we expect to continue to see an uptick in cases with schools in session? Yes, we do,” McLaughlin said. “We want people to be very vigilant. I know a lot of people are probably getting tired of following covid mitigation strategies, but we know they work.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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