Northwest Arkansas health care providers prepare for flu season – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Health care providers in Northwest Arkansas are preparing for flu season, which could be complicated by the covid-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the number of covid-19 patients hospitalized in Northwest Arkansas fell below 50 for the first time in nearly four months.

Even though last year’s flu season was mild, this year’s could be more serious as covid-19 precautions wane, and travel and gatherings increase, according to local and state doctors.

Additional cases of the flu could put more stress on the health care system even if there are fewer cases of covid-19 than last winter, said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, medical director of the Arkansas Department of Health.

“We strongly encourage people to get the flu shot,” she said. “It takes a couple of weeks for the immune system to develop antibodies, so go ahead and get vaccinated.”

The number of flu tests administered last year was relatively high, but positivity rates were very low, said Dr. Mark Thomas, Washington Regional vice president and medical director of population health. During most years, 26% to 30% of flu tests are positive, but last year only 1% were positive, he said.

“Flu was really nonexistent,” he said.

Dillaha attributed the mild flu season to the precautions people were taking for covid-19. Fewer kids were in school, more adults were working remotely and people were wearing masks and social distancing, she said.

“It worked really well to prevent the spread of the flu and other respiratory viruses,” she said.

Less international travel may have also reduced the number of flu cases last year, according to Dr. Justin Voris, a family medicine and obstetrics practitioner at Baptist Health in Fort Smith.

Once people started going back to routine activities and stopped wearing masks, the state saw flu cases increase, Dillaha said. Starting in April through the summer, the number of cases were much higher than usual, and other viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus were also circulating, she said.

Flu season officially began three weeks ago and will extend through April. Flu activity so far is minimal, according to the Department of Health. So far no influenza deaths or nursing home outbreaks have been reported this year, the department’s weekly report states.

Dr. Michael Callaway, a family medicine practitioner for Mercy Fort Smith, said he hasn’t seen many cases of the flu this year, but sometimes the flu hits the region later in the season. Flu seasons tend to be cyclical and the last severe season was in 2018, he said.

Callaway said he is preparing for the flu season by getting as many patients vaccinated as possible.

Voris said he didn’t see any flu cases in his practice last year, nor has he seen any this year. However, with more travel, gatherings and events this year, the flu may make a comeback, he said.

It’s also possible people will have less immunity this year because they weren’t exposed to the flu last year, Dillaha said.

High-risk populations

The flu can be serious for anyone, but it is especially dangerous for people over the age of 65 and very young children, as well as those with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems and pregnant women, Dillaha said.

Women who get the flu during pregnancy can have severe outcomes and there can also be detrimental effects to the baby, she said. Getting the flu vaccine can protect the mother and pass antibodies on to the baby that will last after it is born, she said.

Everyone over the age of 6 months should be getting the flu vaccine, Thomas said. Early evidence suggests vaccination rates are lower this year than in years past, he said.

It is impossible to get the flu from the flu shot because the vaccine does not have a complete virus in it, Dillaha said. The influenza vaccine is not as effective at preventing the flu as some vaccines for other illnesses, but it does a very good job of keeping people out of the hospital and keeping them alive, she said.

The flu vaccine is remarkably safe, Thomas said. There are rare individuals who have severe allergic reactions to some of the components of the vaccine, but there are vaccines made from other components they can use, Thomas said.

“When your immune system is being asked to respond you are going to get some symptoms,” he said. “A sore arm, muscle aches and fatigue are the main side effects.”

The flu or covid-19

Distinguishing between the flu and covid-19 will be important for health care providers and patients. Many symptoms of the flu and covid-19 are similar, such as fever, body aches and cough, but covid-19 carries an exponentially higher risk of serious illness and death, doctors said.

Any time those symptoms are present, patients should see their doctor and get tested, Voris and Callaway said.

Before the pandemic, healthy young people in their 20s with flu symptoms didn’t need to come to a doctor’s office and expose other patients, to get diagnosed and get a treatment that might shorten their symptoms by only a few days, Thomas said.

Now, patients need to get tested and diagnosed as soon as possible because treatments are available for the flu and covid-19, he said. Early treatment works much better than late treatment, Thomas said.

The health care system’s way of managing respiratory illnesses has to improve this year to address whether or not someone has covid-19, the flu or something else, Thomas said. Because of the pandemic, doctors’ waiting rooms are now managed in a different way that makes it much less likely patients will spread illnesses, he said.

Methods for preventing the flu and preventing covid-19 are similar, doctors said. Both illnesses are spread by respiratory droplets, but it seems the covid-19 virus is more contagious, Voris said.

Other countries have been accustomed to wearing masks during the flu season and it wouldn’t hurt Arkansas residents to do the same, Dillaha said. Staying home when sick is another important strategy to prevent spreading the virus, she said.

“Getting immunized for covid is the first thing, getting immunized for the flu is the second thing,” Thomas said. “If you can get those things, you are really helping everybody. You are keeping those doctor’s offices from being overwhelmed” with having to figure out whether an illness is flu or covid, he said.

Mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing also prevent both illnesses, he said.

Covid numbers

On Thursday, 43 patients in the region were hospitalized with covid-19, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council. This was the first week since early July local covid-19 hospitalizations were below 50.

A total of 39 patients were on ventilators and 97 were in intensive care unit beds in Northwest Arkansas on Thursday, the council website stated. Patients include those with covid-19 and other medical needs.

Hospitalizations were also down in the River Valley. Twenty-five covid-19 patients were hospitalized at Baptist Health-Fort Smith on Friday, including 13 in the covid critical care units and eight on ventilators, according to spokeswoman Alicia Agent. At Baptist Health-Van Buren, there was one patient, who is not on a ventilator, she said. Last Friday, there were 26 covid-19 patients hospitalized in the Fort Smith hospital, she said.

Mercy Fort Smith had 24 covid-19 patients on Friday, with 11 in ICU, spokeswoman Mardi Taylor said — down slightly from last Friday’s 26 hospitalizations and nine ICU patients.

Statewide, covid-19 hospitalizations were down from 414 last week to 348 this Friday, according to Danyelle McNeill, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Health. A total of 161 covid-19 patients were in ICU and 96 patients were on ventilators.


More News

Baptist Health flu vaccination events

Baptist Health will provide free flu shots over the course of three days in November. Shots will be given to individuals 12 years of age and older at the following locations:

Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., at Baptist Health-Fort Smith in the northwest employee parking lot on Towson Avenue

Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., at Baptist Health-Van Buren in the main parking lot

Nov. 6, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Baptist Health-Fort Smith in the northwest employee parking lot on Towson Avenue

Those with Medicare Part B should bring proof of coverage. For more information, contact Baptist Health at 1-888-BAPTIST.

Mercy Fort Smith flu shots

Mercy Fort Smith offers drive-up flu shots from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week for those over age 18 at Mercy Convenient Care, at 3505 S. 79th St. Those receiving a shot should park in a designated location, have their insurance information ready, and call 479-709-8686. Masking is required.

Flu shots are also available by appointment at Mercy primary care locations in Fort Smith as well as in Booneville, Ozark, Paris and Waldron.

Mercy Northwest Arkansas flu shots

Mercy Clinic Family Medicine – Lowell offers flu shots by walk-in or appointment between 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Mercy Clinic Primary Care on Moberly Lane in Bentonville offers drive-through flu shots.

For established Mercy patients, flu shots are available only by appointment at all primary care and family medicine locations.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

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