The flu makes comeback in Alaska amid omicron spike

Icee Delgado, 9, gets a flu shot after getting her COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at Riverbend Elementary School in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

While the omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to spread across the state, another virus is making a comeback: the flu.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in 2020, the number of reported flu cases dropped dramatically.

“All of last year — from October to May is our reporting timeframe for flu — we had 113 cases total,” said Carrie Edmonson, a nurse epidemiologist for the state Department of Health and Social Services “So that is definitely very low, and that was seen nationwide.”

So far, during this year’s reporting period, there have already been 957 recorded flu cases.

However, she says there was more focus from medical providers on just testing for COVID last year. She believes one of the reasons the state is seeing higher flu numbers is that more medical providers are making use of what’s called a multiplex test.

“That is to test for COVID, flu A and B, and then RSV, so it’s like a respiratory test,” Edmonson said. “And the more providers use that, the better because they’re also testing for other things other than COVID.”

While 957 flu cases are a lot compared to last year, it’s dwarfed by an average, pre-pandemic, Alaska year. Edmonson says a normal year in the state would see around 7,500 cases.

Edmonson says that might be partly because of the precautions Alaskans are taking to fight COVID-19 also work against the flu.

“We’re seeing it in schools,” Edmonson said. “You’re seeing a lot less strep throat, RSV and flu transmission because kids are wearing masks. So you’re seeing less of other viruses because they’re taking the COVID precautions.”

Edmonson says getting a flu shot every year is another way Alaskans can keep flu numbers down, as each successive shot builds on the antibodies from the prior year’s vaccine.

Edmonson says it’ll likely be another few years before flu numbers return to normal, but she’s hopeful that Alaskans will learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to take similar precautions for the flu, like washing your hands and staying home if you’re sick.

Alaska Public Media

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