19 flu deaths push state's total to 159 in dismal season

But symptom visits to doctors, ERs fall in week, a sign worst may be over

Posted: February 21, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: February 21, 2018 at 2:49 p.m.

Nineteen more flu-related deaths were reported to the state in the past week, bringing the death toll from the current flu season to 159, the state Department of Health reported.

The department also reported that doctor's office and emergency room visits by patients with flu-like symptoms declined last week, providing health officials with hope that the worst of the flu season -- the state's deadliest in at least 17 years -- has passed.

After rising for five straight weeks, the percentage of emergency room visits that were by patients with flu-like symptoms dropped during the week that ended Saturday to 7.6 percent, from 8.8 percent the previous week, according to a Health Department report.

Meanwhile the percentage of doctor's office visits that were by patients with flu-like symptoms dropped to 7.5 percent, from 11.5 percent a week earlier.

Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that the percentage of doctor visits by patients with flu-like symptoms remained essentially flat, at about 7.5 percent, during the weeks ending Feb. 3 and Feb. 10.

Arkansas' state epidemiologist, Dirk Haselow, said it will take another week or two to confirm the peak period of transmission in the state has passed.

"It really does look different, and we're excited to see that," Haselow said. "It's about time for us to start heading down."

Citing declining patient volume, Mercy Health announced last week that it would close down a flu clinic it opened in Fort Smith in January.

The clinic reduced its hours starting last Thursday and will be open for its final day this Friday.

In Batesville, the White River Health System doesn't have immediate plans to close extra clinics that it opened to accommodate flu patients, spokesman Michele Wood said.

"Right now, they are having high volume," she said.

Nationally and in Arkansas, public health officials have described the current flu season as one of the worst in years.

The death toll from the current flu season in Arkansas earlier this month surpassed the 110 people who died in the state during the 2014-15 season, which had been the state's deadliest since the Health Department began tracking flu deaths in 2000.

Haselow said most deaths occur after the peak of transmission during a flu season, making it likely that the death toll in Arkansas will double in coming weeks.

"I would not be surprised if we hit 300, and that would be far and away our worst season in long, long time," he said.

The most recent deaths include 10 people age 65 or over, five people age 45-64 and four people age 25-44.

The other deaths this season include three children or teenagers 18 or younger, seven people 25-44, 18 people 45-64 and 112 people 65 or older.

At least 32 of the people who have died had been vaccinated against the flu and 74 had not been vaccinated, according to the Health Department. Whether any of the others who died had been vaccinated hadn't been determined.

For most of the flu season, the most common flu virus has been H3N2, which tends to cause more severe illness than other flu viruses and mutates more quickly, making vaccines less effective against it.

In Arkansas, however, cases of influenza B in recent weeks have been more common than H3N2, Haselow said.

The CDC reported last week that the flu vaccine reduces the risk of infection by any type of flu by an estimated 36 percent. That includes a 25 percent reduction in the risk of H3N2 infection and a 42 percent reduction in the risk of influenza B infection.

People who haven't gotten the vaccine should still do so, even if they've already had the flu, Haselow said. The vaccine becomes fully effective about two weeks after the shot is administered, and the flu season is likely to last at least 10 more weeks, he said.

People who have already gotten one type of flu can still get another type during the same season, he said.

Haselow added that people who develop flu symptoms -- a high fever, body aches, headache and a cough -- should seek medical care quickly.

A doctor may prescribe antiviral medication, which can shorten the length of illness and reduce the risk of a patient becoming hospitalized or transmitting the virus to other people, he said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Monday that the state's Medicaid program would no longer require doctors to seek the program's permission when prescribing more than one course of the antiviral medication for a patient during a 23-day period.

"Hopefully this will add to the alleviation of flu season and bring a quicker end to it very soon," Hutchinson said.

Metro on 02/21/2018