Flu deaths 94; governor joins call for shots
The flu-related deaths of 22 more Arkansans, including one child, were reported to the state in the past week, raising the death toll from this year’s flu season to 94, state officials said Tuesday.
The severity of this year’s flu season prompted Gov. Asa Hutchinson to hold a news conference with state health officials, who urged Arkansans to get flu shots if they haven’t already gotten them.
Hutchinson said he’s been in “regular contact” with Department of Health Director Nate Smith and state Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe about the illness and wants to “make sure we’re doing everything we can as a state to prevent the
spread of the flu.”
“Like many Arkansans, I’m very concerned about the impact and severity of the flu season this year,” Hutchinson said.
He noted that the deaths include two children, which he called “a concern to any parent or grandparent.”
According to news reports, 8-year-old Tyler Dannaway of Little Rock died of the flu on Jan. 16.
Health officials said Tuesday that another child, whom they did not identify, had died within the past week. The child was between the ages of 5 and 18, according to a Health Department report.
Of the other deaths, 79 have been of Arkansans ages 65 and older, 12 ages 45-64 and one age 25-44.
Smith said two-thirds of flu deaths typically come after the peak of flu season.
If that holds true this year, the total number of deaths this season will be more than twice the 110 people who died during the 2014-15 season. That was the deadliest flu season since the Health Department began closely tracking flu deaths about 17 years ago.
“This is going to be a record season, I expect,” Smith said.
The most common kind of flu this year is H3N2, which tends to cause more severe illness than other types and that also dominated the 201415 season.
This year’s flu vaccine is thought to be about 30 percent effective against H3N2 and more effective against other types of flu, which also circulate at the same time, state epidemiologist Dirk Haselow said.
Arkansas is among the states that have been hit hardest this year, which is one of the nation’s worst flu seasons in years, he said.
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 10 percent of doctor’s office visits in Arkansas in early January were by people with flu-like illnesses. Among the 48 states for which information was available, Arkansas’ percentage was the fifth-highest, behind Kentucky, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.
As of last week, the percentage of doctor’s office visits that were for treatment of flu-like illnesses in Arkansas had fallen to 8.2 percent. But the percentage of emergency room visits for flu-like illnesses had increased slightly to 7.9 percent, compared with 7.8
percent a week earlier.
To help address the situation, the White River Health System in Batesville will open a weekend flu clinic on Saturday, spokesman Michele Wood said.
Last flu season and this season, the system opened a clinic targeting walk-in flu patients. It is open Tuesday through Friday, with no weekend clinic, she said.
“Now we’re seeing on weekends that high volume in our emergency room with flu,” Wood said.
A Mercy Health System flu clinic that opened Jan. 10 in Fort Smith has treated 1,312 patients, including 589 who tested positive for the flu.
“The numbers are not waning at all,” Mercy spokesman Todd Nighswonger said.
Kelly Rodgers, superintendent of the North Little Rock School District, said 23 percent of North Little Rock High School’s 2,162 students were absent Tuesday for reasons largely attributed to the flu. Elementary school absences were below 10 percent, however, he said.
There were no plans to cancel classes, Rodgers said, but the absentee rates will be monitored. Additionally, district staff members took steps Tuesday to increase the purchase and use of cleaning supplies and disinfectants at
all district schools to help contain the spread of the flu.
Several weeks remain in this flu season, Smith said.
The federal 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover flu shots with no charge to the patient.
The Health Department’s county offices also offer the shots at no charge to the uninsured.
Smith said people at risk of serious complications from the flu — including young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems — should go to their doctors if they develop symptoms and consider taking an antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu.
Flu symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle or body aches, fatigue and a headache, and may also include throwing up and diarrhea in children, according to the Health Department.
Smith also recommended that people wash their hands frequently and avoid touching their mouths, noses and eyes. Those who get the flu should wait until 24 hours after their fever goes away before returning to work or school, he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Arkansas Department of Health Director Nate Smith addresses the importance of hand-washing and using hand sanitizer to curtail the spread of flu as he speaks at a Tuesday news conference with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other state officials.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson fist-bumps instead of shaking hands with Jerry Wheeler, chief medical officer for the state Department of Health, during a news conference Tuesday as they demonstrate one way to help avoid spreading the flu.