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Flu, covid on the rise in Arkansas, officials say

by Teresa Moss | December 8, 2022 at 5:15 a.m.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Little Rock campus is shown in this file photo.

As Arkansas hospitals treat hundreds of patients for covid-19, cases of severe influenza also are rising in the state, with 15 deaths and 165 hospital admissions reported last week, according to Arkansas Health Department data.

The state is seeing very high levels of flu with no signs it will decrease soon, Dr. Joel Tumlison, the Health Department's medical director for immunizations, said Wednesday.

The state has recorded 45 influenza-related deaths since the start of the flu season Oct. 2. One was of a child between the ages of 5 and 17, according to the department's weekly flu report. A majority, or 30, were of people 65 or older.

There were 501 positive polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests for flu in the past week and 2,741 since Oct. 2.

In comparison, there were 46 covid-19 deaths reported in the state in the past week with 226 hospitalizations and 5,259 active cases of covid, which was up by 1,681 from the active case total a week earlier.

Covid and flu cases and deaths are not tracked the same in the state and have different reporting requirements, making it difficult to accurately compare transmission and the severity of illness from the two viruses.

Nearly every state is reporting high or very high influenza activity, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In all, the CDC has recorded at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from flu since October.

Meanwhile, coronavirus hospitalizations are also rising, while cases of respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, remain high, although they appear to have peaked in some regions.

Arkansas has been reporting the spread of influenza as "very high" since the week of Nov. 5, according to the Health Department weekly reports. As cases continue to increase, there is uncertainty about when the spread of the flu will peak, although it's likely to remain high when families gather over Christmas in a few weeks, Tumlison said.

It is the first time since covid hit Arkansas in 2020 that the state has seen a severe flu season, he said.

He said it is possible influenza spread remained lower in recent years because of social distancing and mask usage.

"Two years ago there were lots of restrictions with masks," Tumlison said. "Last season we were in between. There were still a lot more people wearing masks. This year almost none of those measures are being taken."

Immunity to the flu also could be waning because fewer people have been getting it in recent years, he said.

"Those two things are likely contributing to having a more severe flu season," he said.

As covid-19 and flu numbers tick upward, hospitals are starting to get busy, Tumlison said.

"Those things start combining to stretch the ER capacity, staff and bed capacity," Tumlison said. "We have heard from hospitals that they are stretching a little, but we are not in crisis yet. But as covid rises that will become more difficult."

Dr. Robert Hopkins, director of general internal medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and chairman of the National Vaccine Advisory Board, said Wednesday that the flu is the biggest challenge for the medical system right now.

"There is a lot of covid out there too," Hopkins said. "As far as people showing up in the emergency room and clinic -- it seems like we are seeing more flu than covid."

He said UAMS Medical Center has been able to handle the influx of patients as of now. With mask usage and vaccination rates remaining low, surges could stress the system in future weeks, he said.

"I would encourage people who have not got the flu shot or the covid booster to get those done as soon as possible," Hopkins said Wednesday. He also encouraged anyone with respiratory symptoms to contact doctors before risking spreading the illness to family members.

On Monday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky urged Americans to get their flu shots and updated coronavirus vaccine boosters, which are tailored to omicron subvariants. She said early data suggests this year's flu shot formula is well matched against the circulating strains, and that shots drive down hospitalizations even when they do not stop infections.

Public health authorities have been worried about flu vaccination rates that have been lower than in previous years, including in groups at high risk of hospitalization, including young children, pregnant people, and adults 65 and older.

Walensky urged those with symptoms of flu or covid-19 to see doctors early to get prescription antivirals that greatly reduce the likelihood of severe illness if taken within the first days of illness.

Health officials have also prioritized administering flu and coronavirus vaccines to reduce the strain on hospitals at a time when no major jurisdiction has imposed a mask mandate to limit transmission.

On Monday, Walensky said that the CDC recommends masking on public transportation. She said the agency also encourages people "to wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask to help prevent the spread of respiratory illness, especially for the 5 percent of the population currently living in counties with high covid-19 community levels."

Information for this article was contributed by Fenit Nirappil of The Washington Post.

Print Headline: Severe flu, covid-19 on rise in state, health officials say


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