The rise of covid-19 cases and continually high spread of influenza through the holiday season have combined to put a strain on the state’s hospital system as the death toll from both illnesses ticks up.
The Arkansas Department of Health reported 15 new influenza deaths for the week ending Dec. 24, the same number of covid-19 deaths recorded in the past week.
Overall there have been 101 influenza deaths since the season started in October.
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, ADH director, said the total figure for influenza deaths is likely low, as it can take days to weeks for flu deaths to be reported. She said it is possible the number has already passed the flu death totals of seasons recorded before the pandemic.
The health department recorded lower flu transmission during the 2021/2022 and 2020/2021 seasons, likely because of social distancing and mask wearing precautions used by the public because of the covid pandemic.
There were 30 deaths recorded during the 2021 season and 24 during the 2020 season, Dillaha said.
She said 125 deaths were recorded during the 2019/2020 season, 120 in the 2018/2019 season, 228 in the 2017/2018 season and 64 in 2016/2017.
Arkansas remained at very high transmission for flu or at the 12th-highest rank on a scale of 13 for multiple weeks in November and December, according to health department data. In the past two weeks the transmission has dropped some to a “high” ranking or 10th spot on a scale of 13.
“While the intensity level is still high, we are starting to come down,” Dillaha said. “We will have to wait and see after the New Year, whether we have a second peak or not.”
There were 600 positive influenza tests reported to the health department in the past week, a state report said. There were also 11,239 positive covid-19 tests reported to the department in the past seven days, according to its website.
Dillaha said medical providers are not required to report testing and likely the covid-19 numbers are much higher.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Dillaha said. “Hospitalizations for covid also is more an indicator than a trend.”
The data is not the entire picture but it does show an increase of cases, she said.
Hospitalizations of covid patients increased by 10 this week, for a total of 305. While hospitals don’t track influenza cases, they’ve reported 58 hospitalizations of patients with influenza-like illness.
“The high levels of flu as well as the continued spread of covid has resulted in stress on our hospital systems around the state,” Danyelle McNeill, ADH spokeswoman, said in an email. “In some areas of the state, the adult intensive care units where patients with the most severe flu or covid cases are treated are full or close to being full.”
Rick Barr, Arkansas Children’s Health System senior vice president and chief clinical and academic officer, said in an emailed statement that the hospital continues to see many patients with respiratory illness and there hasn’t been a significant shift in volume at the hospital.
“We hope families will remember that flu, RSV and strep are common right now and passed along easily, especially among families and friends who are close in small spaces,” the statement says. “We recommend washing hands frequently and covering coughs to slow the spread of these illnesses.”
Both Barr and Dillaha suggested that the public get the flu vaccine, if they haven’t already.
“The flu vaccine is a great match this year and protects well against the disease,” Barr said. “People who take the shot may still get the flu, but they’re less likely to need care in a hospital and will recover more quickly.”
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