AR Briefly

Arkansas hospitals and health advocates urge vaccinations during harsh flu season

By: - December 14, 2022 5:43 pm

Several Arkansas hospitals joined forces with the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement to urge Arkansans to get vaccinated against influenza, according to a Wednesday news release from ACHI.

Baptist Health in Central Arkansas, Mercy Hospitals in Northeast Arkansas, Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville and St. Bernards Healthcare in Jonesboro signed onto ACHI’s statement encouraging flu shots as a means of protection in time for holiday gatherings.

“Flu season usually peaks in January or February, but we are already seeing a level of infections well above the highest average peak in the past five years,” ACHI President and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson said in the news release.

Arkansas has seen 64 flu-related deaths since Oct. 2, including 19 between Dec. 4 and Dec. 10, according to the state Department of Health’s weekly influenza report released Tuesday. There have been 3,191 flu cases confirmed via laboratory test since Oct. 2, including 354 last week, the report states.

As of Dec. 3, Arkansas has “very high” rates of influenza-like illness, and all but seven states are designated at least “high,” according to the Influenza Division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, 920 Arkansans have been hospitalized for flu-related illness, including 145 last week, according to the ADH report.

These numbers are “not unprecedented” but still above average, ADH Medical Director for Immunizations Dr. Joel Tumlison said Wednesday in a Zoom conference call with reporters.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have also seen a recent uptick, Tumlison said.

“If COVID numbers continue to go up and flu admissions stay high, that’s going to make things difficult for hospitals,” he said.

The annual flu season usually begins in October and lasts five to seven months. Flu cases were fewer than normal in 2020 and 2021 as a result of masking and social distancing, Tumlison previously told the Arkansas Advocate.

Medicaid and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield paid for more than 6,000 visits to health care providers for flu-related illness last week, ADH reported.

“This is down from more than 7,000 visits the previous week, but it is still unusually high,” the ACHI news release states. “Typically, the number is fewer than 1,000 at this time of year, and the number usually does not reach as high as 5,000 in a single week at any point in the season.”

ACHI’s 22-member Health Policy Board issued a call in November encouraging Arkansans to receive flu shots before Thanksgiving gatherings.

A pervasive myth about flu vaccines is that they do not work because they do not always prevent infection, but Tumlison said the vaccine is effective because it prevents severe illness, hospitalization and death.

The flu vaccine is slightly different every year to accommodate mutations of the virus, and this year’s vaccine fights four strains of influenza, Tumlison said. He added that a person can be infected by one strain after recovering from another.

“Once they’re fully recovered and a few weeks out, I recommend they get the flu vaccine if they haven’t got it,” Tumlison said. “It’s really not too late to get the flu vaccine until the flu season’s over, usually by May.”

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. A Midwesterner by birth, she graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 2019.