Fred Meyer advertises flu vaccinations via a banner outside its pharmacy on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Fred Meyer advertises flu vaccinations via a banner outside its pharmacy on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Flu activity is on the rise in Alaska

Just in time for the holidays.

Flu activity in Alaska is on the upswing, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services data.

The most recent 2019-2020 Alaska Weekly Flu Snapshot shows a surge in flu activity — 382 cases in two weeks — closed out November. That brought the season’s activity from about average to noticeably above average for this time of year.

This screenshot from a Alaska Department of Health and Social Services influenza report shows flu activity spiked to an unusual degree in late and mid-November. (Courtesy Photo |Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

This screenshot from a Alaska Department of Health and Social Services influenza report shows flu activity spiked to an unusual degree in late and mid-November. (Courtesy Photo |Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

The Southeast panhandle was not affected as much by that spike as other parts of the state, said Charlee Gribbon, infection preventionist for Bartlett Regional Hospital.

“I would say the short answer is it’s pretty quiet in the Southeast,” said Gribbon, who is also a registered nurse. “I think that (the increase in flu activity) is all due to what’s happening in Anchorage.”

[There’s lots to choose from on Pederson Hill]

Virtually every region of the state, particularly the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Anchorage, showed higher levels of recent flu activity than Southeast Alaska, according to the DHSS data.

Gribbon said it’s usual for more densely populated portions of the state to have higher levels of flu activity earlier in the season than Southeast.

Louisa Castrodale, epidemiologist for DHSS, said while November was notably busy, activity was not especially high when compared to other months in past seasons.

“The brunt of the flu season usually comes later,” Castrodale said.

Gribbon said that’s true in Juneau, too.

“Last year, we had 70 cases of flu in March, and it was really starting to pick up in January and February,” Gribbon said.

For comparison, Gribbon said there were nine reported flu-like cases last week in Juneau.

A state report from last flu season shows more than 1,000 cases per week for some weeks in late January and early February.

This screenshot from a Alaska Department of Health and Social Services influenza report shows what flu activity looked like for the entirety of the 2014-2015, 2015-16, 2016-2017 and 2019-2019 flu seasons. The last couple weeks of the current flu season have been busier than last year, but that is not necessarily predictive of future activity. (Courtesy Photo |Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

This screenshot from a Alaska Department of Health and Social Services influenza report shows what flu activity looked like for the entirety of the 2014-2015, 2015-16, 2016-2017 and 2019-2019 flu seasons. The last couple weeks of the current flu season have been busier than last year, but that is not necessarily predictive of future activity. (Courtesy Photo |Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Early season activity doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the flu season will follow suit, Castrodale said. Flu activity is tough to predict.

Flu activity could be further boosted over the next couple of weeks. The holiday season can coincide with an uptick in flu activity too, Castrodale and Gribbon said.

Traveling, keeping close quarters with relatives and sharing beverages and dips are all activities that can help spread the flu.

Prevention

Gribbon and Castrodale said handwashing and getting a flu shot can help prevent the spread of flu.

“The flu shot is the most effective way to slow the spread of flu,” Gribbon said. “Now is a good time to get the flu shot before the holidays and before Southeast starts seeing high levels of activity .”

She said even people who feel they do not usually get sick can still spread the flu, and she re-framed the flu shot as a way to protect vulnerable populations — elderly people, young children and pregnant women — from the spread of the flu.

People who feel sick, Gribbon said, should stay home from work or school, rest and stay hydrated.

Gribbon said the flu shot is widely available at local stores with pharmacies. Safeway, Fred Meyer, Costco and Ron’s Apothecary all offer the shot.

“Anywhere you go to pick up your milk, you can also go to pick up your flu shot,” Gribbon said.

A new way to track flu data

While the Department of Health and Social Services tracks flu data and releases reports, if people with the flu or flu-like symptoms don’t receive medical attention, they’re not part of the data pool.

Flu Near You, a website that the DHSS site links to, allows users to enter their zip code and how they’re feeling in an attempt to crowdsource flu tracking.

“It’s really cool,” Gribbon said. “You go to the DHSS website, and click on flu information, and there’s a link to Flu Near You. You can sign up, and it will send you weekly emails.”

However, the website does not seem to be widely used in Alaska.

[Cookies and politics factor into open house]

There were just 52 total reports logged within the past week, according to Flu Near You. Of those reports, one was for flu-like symptoms, two were for other illness symptoms and 49 were for no symptoms.

By the numbers

9 Last week, there were nine flu-like cases at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

2.7 per 100,000 That’s the hospitalization rate for this flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s similar to what’s been seen in past years.

6 Nationwide, there have been six pediatric deaths during this flu season, according to CDC.

197 For the week ending Nov. 30, there were 197 flu cases in Alaska, according to the Department of Health and Social Services. That’s the highest so far this season.


• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt


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