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The flu-related deaths of 13 more people, including one child, were reported to the state last week, raising the state's death toll this flu season to 49, the state Department of Health reported Wednesday.

The child, who was listed as being between ages 5 and 18, was the state's first pediatric death of this flu season.

After dipping a week earlier, doctor-office visits by patients with flu-like symptoms rose, although not to the level of late December. Emergency room visits by people with flu-like symptoms fell from the week before, but made up a slightly larger percentage of emergency visits to hospitals.

"While we appear to have peaked, we've not seen a consistent downturn in cases at this point," said Gary Wheeler, the Health Department's chief medical officer. "We're still in the thick of flu season, basically."

Hospital officials in Little Rock, Fort Smith and Fayetteville said they are seeing a steady stream of patients.

Sean Baker, department chairman of Mercy Clinic Family Medicine in Fort Smith, said the flu season is one of the worst he's seen in 20 years.

Last week, the Mercy health system opened a flu clinic across the street from its hospital in Fort Smith to help handle the surge in patients.

So far, the clinic has been seeing about 80 patients a day, Baker said.

"They're busy from the minute they open the door until the minute the doors close," he said.

At Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, 437 patients have tested positive for the flu, including 211 during the first 16 days of January, said James "Buddy" Newton, the hospital's director of antimicrobial stewardship and infection.

During the previous season, 332 patients tested positive for the flu, he said.

"It's definitely not slowing down," he said.

Flu season typically starts in the fall and peaks in January or February. This season started earlier than usual, with emergency room and doctor visits increasing significantly in December.

During the week that ended Saturday, about 10 percent of patients visiting the doctor had flu-like symptoms, which include fever and muscle aches.

That was up from 8.9 percent of patients a week earlier, but still down from a peak of 14.4 percent in late December.

Claims paid by the state Medicaid program and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield for medical costs related to the flu increased after falling a week earlier, according to a Health Department report.

It's possible that flu transmission rebounded after slowing when schools closed for the holidays, Wheeler said.

"If we continue to believe this is a relatively moderately severe year, we would expect in the next couple of weeks that we would begin to see a drop-off in cases," with the outbreak continuing to diminish over six to eight weeks, he said.

With several weeks left in the flu season, Wheeler said those who haven't been vaccinated should get flu shots. People can also avoid infection by washing their hands and bumping fists instead of shaking hands, he said.

Wayne Lyle, an emergency medicine physician at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, said the number of flu patients "seems pretty typical of previous years."

He said he sees 30-40 patients a day with the flu. Of those, three to five are elderly patients who end up being hospitalized for pneumonia.

The others are advised to take over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, and are offered a prescription of Tamiflu, which shortens the illness in some cases but can also cause headaches and other side effects.

"Some people elect to get it filled. Some elect not to," he said.

The Health Department said the other deaths last week included two people ages 45-64, raising the total number of deaths in that age category to seven. All the other deaths have been people 65 or older.

Typically people 65 or older and young children are the most vulnerable to the flu, although child deaths nationally have been less common this year than some other years, Wheeler said.

"It's devastating to see these deaths, but it's an unfortunate, expected thing that we see almost every year," he said.

A Section on 01/18/2018

Print Headline: Flu cases rise after previous drop-off; 13 deaths in state in week; 1 a child

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