13 deaths last week tied to flu

State agency sees drop in new cases

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS - GINNY MONK

Thir­teen Arkansans died last week from flu-re­lated ill­ness in the most deadly sea­son in more than a decade, ac­cord­ing to the state Health De­part­ment.

De­spite the num­ber of new deaths, which raised the to­tal to 197, the sea­son is wind­ing down. There has been close to an 80 per­cent drop-off in re­ported cases, said Dr. Gary Wheeler, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer for the Arkansas De­part­ment of Health.

“We can fi­nally see a light at the end of this tun­nel, and there are many ex­hausted peo­ple who have ei­ther been tak­ing care of peo­ple with the flu or peo­ple who had the flu,” Wheeler said. “I think ev­ery­body’s very, very happy that we’re fi­nally get­ting to this point.”

All but one of last week’s deaths were peo­ple older than 65. The other was some­one be­tween 25 and 44, ac­cord­ing to the de­part­ment’s re­port.

Arkansas is one of 15 states that had “high” flu ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the last week of Fe­bru­ary, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. The up­dated re­port from the state, for the week that ended Satur­day, said that the ac­tiv­ity has dropped to “mod­er­ate.”

In­stances of peo­ple en­ter­ing hos­pi­tal emer­gency rooms with flu symp­toms de­creased from 3.1 per­cent to 2.6 per­cent of to­tal vis­its, ac­cord­ing to the weekly in­fluenza re­port.

This is a key sign the sea­son is only a cou­ple of weeks from its end, Wheeler said, adding that get­ting the flu vac­ci­na­tion might not be “as great of value at this point.”

He rec­om­mended that Arkansans get the shot next year. At least 82 of this sea­son’s flu vic­tims did not get the shot, and the vac­ci­na­tion sta­tus of about 74 other vic­tims is un­known, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion from Meg Mirivel, pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the Health De­part­ment. At least 41 peo­ple who have died of the flu this sea­son did get the vac­ci­na­tion.

Al­though the virus has nearly run its course, Arkansas schools are still feel­ing the ef­fects. Clark County, which in­cludes Gur­don and Arkadel­phia school dis­tricts, had the high­est per­cent­age of ab­sences at just over 11 per­cent of stu­dents ab­sent. The av­er­age rate of ab­sen­teeism was 6.1 per­cent of stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to the weekly flu re­port.

Gur­don Su­per­in­ten­dent Allen Black­well said he closed school Feb. 9 be­cause of­fi­cials sent nearly 40 chil­dren home with flu symp­toms over the course of two hours.

“The flu was harder this year than it had been in the past,” Black­well said. “I have been a su­per­in­ten­dent for 12 years, and it was the first time I had ever taken a day off.”

Nurses ad­min­is­tered flu shots at school, and about half of the stu­dents got vac­ci­na­tions, he said.

Gur­don wasn’t the only school to send stu­dents home for a day or two to clean and dis­in­fect their cam­puses. The Rus­sel­lville School Dis­trict closed Jan. 19. Clin­ton Schools closed Feb. 5. The Kirby School Dis­trict closed Feb. 2 and 5.

The Arkadel­phia School Dis­trict, also in Clark County, hasn’t closed, and ab­sences are low, said Han­nah Dean, the dis­trict’s di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“We were very for­tu­nate this year,” she said.

Wheeler ex­pressed a hope that na­tional health or­ga­ni­za­tions will im­prove the flu vac­ci­na­tion to cover more strains of the virus. This year’s pre­dom­i­nant strain was H3N2.

The speed and qual­ity of vac­ci­na­tions needs im­prov­ing to avoid pan­demics, he said.

“Hope­fully, we’ll have a bet­ter uni­ver­sal flu vac­cine in the next few years,” Wheeler said.

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