The COVID pandemic has limited medical services in Alaska. Now, with the flu season beginning, local health care providers say the problem could get worse, and they’re urging people to get vaccinated.
“There’s definitely some concern about how bad the flu season might be and what that’s going to do in relationship to COVID,” said Dr. Cortney Hess of the Petersburg Medical Center. “Every winter we struggle with people that are so sick with the flu that they need the ICU. And so, when we think about putting flu ICU patients on top of COVID ICU patients, we get worried.”
Moving patients out of Petersburg has been a challenge in recent months. Hess says some hospitals that normally take patients for specialty services are at capacity with COVID patients. She says she’s had to spend hours on the phone calling hospitals that say they have no beds.
“And I just keep calling and pushing and pleading,” she said.
Hess says COVID-19 patients often stay on ventilators for weeks, which can create a logjam for hospital beds.
Hess says the hospital is encouraging people to get the flu shot, which they can get at the same time as their COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot. Flu vaccines change every year according to the strains predicted to be circulating.
“It’s only going to build layers upon layers of protection,” Hess said. “They do their best guess about which flu strains are going to be the most prevalent, but you’re still getting protection from last year’s flu shot for some of the other strains that are still going to be around.”
Anyone over the age of six months is eligible for the flu vaccine. People over 65 can get a special version of the shot that is a little stronger.
Petersburg’s last COVID-19 outbreak started to decline during the first week of October, going from a 39 cases to 21. Petersburg Medical Center CEO Phil Hofstetter says a variety of factors helped.
The school district scaled up its testing and contact tracing, the borough announced an emergency proclamation and hospital staff worked extra hours. Hofstetter says many hospital departments helped with testing.
“We just burned through 500 of those,” he said. “Our lab staff was there until 11:00, midnight almost every single night. I mean, it was really challenging.”
Supplies of rapid tests and monoclonal antibody treatments have been limited but are starting to be replenished. But Hess says the vaccinations are much more effective at preventing problems than the antibody treatment.
Pfizer booster shots are now available for people who had their Pfizer series at least six months ago. Anybody 65 and older can get the booster, as well as people 18 and over with compromised immune systems. They’re also giving Pfizer boosters to front line workers like grocery store employees and health care workers.
Moderna boosters could still be months away. Johnson and Johnson should be coming out with a booster before that. But according to Hess, they’re not sure when Moderna boosters will be needed because that vaccine is proving to be more effective in the long term.
And on Oct. 7, Pfizer submitted vaccines for those ages 5 to 11 to the FDA for emergency use.
“I’m feeling hopeful that maybe by early November we might have access to Pfizer vaccines for our five to 11 year old kids,” Hess said.
Free COVID-19 and flu vaccines are available at the hospital in Petersburg.