Flu deaths 94; gov­er­nor joins call for shots

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - ANDY DAVIS

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 Demo­crat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN

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.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN

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.

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