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Arkansas flu cases, deaths continue to rise

The start of flu season is still weeks or months away, but you can get a flu shot now at many pharmacies. "It's a way to get people into the store to buy other things," says Tom Charland, an analyst who tracks the walk-in clinic industry.
Darron Cummings
Though hospitalizations appear to be falling, new cases and deaths from influenza continue to trend upward in Arkansas.

Public health experts say Arkansas could be experiencing a peak in its flu season. New data released Wednesday from the Department of Health show the state’s death toll rose by 19 people for the week ending Dec. 10. A total of 64 Arkansans have died from the virus since early October.

Dr. Joel Tumlison, the department’s Medical Director for Immunizations, says this year’s flu season is more severe and longer than average.

“We’re certainly not used to seeing very high spread of flu in November as we’ve seen so far earlier this year, and certainly even in early- to mid-December,” Tumlison said. “Usually we’re just starting to see now the ramp-up of flu cases in an average year, which usually peaks in late January or early February.”

He attributes that, in part, to flu activity being milder than average for the past two years, largely because of COVID-19 precautions. This time last year, the Health Department reported a total of 702 positive tests and one death from the flu, compared to 15,900 cases and 64 deaths this week.

Despite the rise in new cases and deaths, Tumlison says there are some promising indicators in this week’s report.

“The percentage of [emergency room] visits due to an influenza-like illness has gone down two weeks in a row. It was at a really high level, over 8%, now it’s down to around 6%,” Tumlison said. “Similarly, influenza-like illnesses as a percentage of patients seen by outpatient providers, like in clinics, has also gone down two weeks in a row.”

While the flu vaccine appears to be effective against the two predominant strains of the influenza A virus currently circulating in Arkansas, Tumlison says it’s still too early to tell how long peak flu activity will last in the state.

“Not usually, but frequent enough that it’s common, an influenza B strain will decide to start circulating as well… we’ll get kind of a double peak, and usually the second peak may not be as high as the first one. But it can bump up again later in the season,” Tumlison said.

920 Arkansans have been hospitalized due to the influenza virus, with 145 people admitted in the past week. Of the 64 Arkansans have died from the flu so far this season, 75% were not vaccinated.

Tumlison says it’s never too late to get the flu vaccine, even if you’ve recently been diagnosed.

“To get hospitalized for any infectious illness is a very severe thing, and so getting immunized is very effective at keeping you out of the hospital even if it wasn’t ever going to get to the point of you dying. We would like to keep you out of the emergency room completely and like you to be as healthy as possible,” Tumlison said.

Just under 16,000 flu cases have been reported to the Arkansas Department of Health so far this season, though the case total is likely higher since reporting isn’t mandatory. Hospitalizations appear to be on a downward trend, with about 20 fewer people being admitted compared to last week.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.