Local hospitals running near capacity as flu, RSV cases rise

Flu season is ramping up earlier than expected when compared to recent years
Flu season is ramping up earlier than expected when compared to recent years
Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 5:04 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Influenza has arrived in Alaska, as the most recent graphical data from the Alaska Division of Public Health shows this year’s flu season is steadily on the rise earlier than it has in recent years.

In a public health ECHO held Tuesday, Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Section Chief of Epidemiology said flu rates are highest on the East Coast and southern portions of the lower 48, but that wave will likely spread north.

In addition to an early rise in flu cases is a stark jump in Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infections.

“We’re seeing a lot of RSV activity and RSV-associated hospitalizations among children ages less than 18 (years old) this year,” McLaughlin said during the public ECHO.

The rise in both flu and RSV cases has put an additional strain on local hospitals already dealing with post-pandemic staffing shortages, which is something that could affect emergency room wait times.

“We have heard of facilities in town where wait times have ballooned up to five hours or so,” Jared Kosin, CEO of the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association said. “Right now you kind of have a perfect storm potentially, but that happening on a Monday doesn’t mean it’s going to happen on a Tuesday.”

Kosin said wait times that long are not common, but also not an unusual occurrence this time of year and that healthcare demands fluctuate daily. He also indicated that the number of patients experiencing hospitalization never really tapered off after COVID-19.

“We’ve talked to hospitals across the entire state. Some have experienced really high volumes and patient levels and have had higher wait times in their ERs, some others are totally normal,” Kosin stated. “One day you might have a lot of people in your emergency room waiting to be seen and ultimately get a bed on the floor, and then that night you might discharge several more patients and everything shifts, and it goes from really chaotic and busy to quiet.”

During the public ECHO, local healthcare officials said that while there has been an increase in RSV cases, numbers are still not as high compared to the Lower 48. Many who get an infection experience mild illness before recovering in one or two weeks.

Infants, younger children, and older adults are groups at higher risk of hospitalization if an RSV infection were to occur, potentially leading to complications such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Currently, RSV is not a reportable condition in Alaska so it’s hard to determine just how many people have been affected.

McLaughlin said there are not currently any vaccines for RSV, so it’s important to take preventative measures such as covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding contact with individuals who are sick, hand-washing, and disinfecting surfaces. According to McLaughlin, two vaccines have shown promise and could become available for adults as early as next year.

In regards to influenza, health officials said that while flu season may be coming into full swing it is not too late for anyone six months and older to get an annual flu shot.