Flu shots are available at the Petersburg Medical Center clinic. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The COVID pandemic has limited medical services in Alaska. And now, the flu season has begun. Local health care providers say that could compound the problem and are urging people to get vaccinated. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:

Separately, the flu season and the COVID pandemic are challenges for hospitals like the Petersburg Medical Center. But when they’re happening at the same time. . .

“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, Physician at 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 local patients for specialty services are at capacity with COVID patients.

“You know, sometimes I’ve been on the phone for a couple of hours at a time, just calling one hospital, they said no beds, calling the next hospital, they say no beds, calling the next hospital, they say I can get you in tomorrow,” she said. “And I just keep calling and pushing and pleading.”

Hess says patient with COVID are often staying on ventilators for weeks, which can create a log jam for hospital beds.

That could increase with people having flu complications. PMC is encouraging people to get the flu shot, which they can get at the same time as their COVID shot or their booster shot. The 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.

The last COVID outbreak in Petersburg started to decline during the first week of October, going from a 39 cases to 21. PMC 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 PMC staff worked extra hours. He says many hospital departments helped with testing and they went through hundreds of them.

“We just burned through 500 of those,” Hofstetter said. “We were sort of stocking up in the event of an outbreak but as the week went on and there were so many people getting tested and so many rapid tests being done and 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. Hess says the vaccinations are much more effective at preventing problems than the antibody treatment.

“The monoclonal antibodies l are still under emergency use so they haven’t been studies as well actually as the vaccines, which are not under emergency use anymore,” she said.

But she says most people seem to be tolerating the treatment. She says people with COVID need to get it before they are too sick otherwise it won’t help.

Pfizer booster shots are available for people who had their Pfizer series at least six months ago. Anybody 65 and older can get the booster or those who are 18 and over with compromised immune systems. They’re also giving Pfizer boosters to any front line workers like health care workers, EMS, or grocery store 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 since the vaccines are proving to be more effective in the long term.

Perhaps the biggest advancement in COVID vaccines now is for children. On October 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.

PMC and Public Health in Petersburg are giving out free COVID and flu vaccines. People can get them at the hospital and they plan to hold several vaccine clinics in the near future.

Dr. Cortney Hess and Phil Hofstetter were speaking on PMC Live, a monthly radio show on KFSK. You can listen to the whole 45 minute episode here.