The Arkansas Health Department said Friday that the flu virus is now considered "widespread" in the state, with this week's sharpest increases in Northwest Arkansas and in Craighead County.
Department spokesman Meg Mirivel said 19 people have died from the illness in Arkansas since Oct. 2. Of those, 16 were 65 or older.
Arkansas reported 11 flu-related deaths for the 2015-16 flu season. Flu season generally runs from December through March, Mirivel said.
"It's not that unusual to see a spike like this at this time of year," Mirivel said. "But there have been more deaths already this year than all of last year."
She urged people to get flu vaccination shots. It takes up to two weeks for the vaccination to begin working, so local health agencies are urging people to not put it off.
"We have certainly seen an uptick in cases in the last few weeks," state epidemiologist Dirk Haselow said Friday in a news release from the state Health Department. "The good news is that this year's vaccine seems to be a good match for the flu strains that are circulating."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said this week that influenza A(H3) was the most prevalent, which is a common strain of the virus. The center reported 16,687 flu cases in 43 states since October.
Southern states, such as Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama, have seen large increases, the center said.
Mirivel said the jump in illnesses this flu season could be credited to a mild season a year ago and an ineffective vaccination offered two years ago, when the flu strain that hit the state was a poor match for the vaccine.
"The flu shots are reformatted each year," Mirivel said. "It's the best protection we have against the flu."
Flu shots are available at county health units, many doctor's offices and pharmacies.
The Health Department said those who are at higher risk of contracting the flu virus are children 2 and younger, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, people with suppressed immune systems or chronic health problems such as asthma and diabetes, and those living in nursing homes or chronic-care facilities.
Symptoms include fever, chills, coughs, sore throat, runny nose, muscle or body aches, fatigue and headache.
The flu also has hit classrooms. Arkansas schools have reported a 7.35 percent rate of absenteeism because of the illness. Searcy County reported the highest rate with 12.28 percent last week, the latest figures available.
Gentry School District in Benton County closed Friday because of an increase in absences.
Superintendent Randy Barrett said 13 percent of the district's 1,440 students were absent this week because of the flu. Barrett chose to close school Friday because schools would be closed Monday for the George Washington's Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day holiday.
"It is believed a four-day weekend will give ill staff and students time to recuperate and hopefully slow or end the spreading of illness," Barrett said on the school district's website.
Gravette and Decatur also reported higher-than-usual absences this week because of the flu.
Mirivel said the virus can spread easily in schools and in workplaces because people are indoors and in close contact with one another.
Jonesboro pharmacist Rian Snell said he hasn't seen an increase in customers asking for flu shots at his pharmacy.
"The flu just began about two or three weeks ago," he said. "We've seen less patients than last year so far, but it could hit all at once.
"If it continues at the same trend we're seeing now, I'll be singing another tune."
State Desk on 02/18/2017