13 deaths last week tied to flu
State agency sees drop in new cases
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.