In less than two months, Arkansas reported 30 flu-related deaths in the 2022-2023 season, according to a report from the state health department. This matches the total death count of last season, and health experts aren’t sure just how severe this season will be.
The Arkansas Department of Health released its weekly flu report Wednesday, which detailed data from Oct. 2 to Nov. 26. The reports lag a few days behind, so the most recent update only covers a few days after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Nearly 12,000 positive flu cases in Arkansas have been reported to the ADH since Oct. 2, but this number only represents a portion of the actual infected population, according to the report. A large majority of the positive cases, 91%, were identified as Influenza A.
The early influx in flu cases is atypical in a regular flu season — illnesses normally peak in the winter months of January and February. This early increase in cases will likely cause a difficult winter for respiratory infection.
Of the 30 deaths reported, 20 were Arkansans aged 65 and older — the report doesn’t get more specific than that for older individuals. Six deaths were folks aged 45-64; three were aged 25-44 and one death was a young person aged 5-17.
“The past two flu seasons were dramatically impacted by COVID-19 mitigation measures,” State Epidemiologist Mike Cima said. “Deaths from those seasons were much lower than what could be considered the baseline for Arkansas. With physical mitigation measures scaled back compared to the previous years, it was expected that flu would return to pre-pandemic levels.”
Demographic information like sex, race or ethnicity or location of those infected or deceased is not released. The report stated that 13 nursing homes have reported flu outbreaks since Oct. 2, but identifying information is not released about those, either. School data was not available in the latest report due to the holiday break.
For the fourth consecutive week, Arkansas stayed within the “very high” flu intensity level. Surrounding states have similar “high” or “very high” activity levels — Texas and Tennessee have both topped the scale at the most intense level. Arkansas is one away from the top of the scale.
Cima said that while there isn’t a precise prediction for how long the high numbers will continue, “it is safe to assume, however, that the flu will remain at high levels for at least the next few weeks.”
According to the report, about 8% of emergency room visitors across the state experienced flu-like illness for the week ending on Nov. 26. This percent exceeds the last two previous flu seasons in their entirety. During the 2021-2022 season, the highest percentage reported was 3% around the end of December.
Cima said that while a “truly significant increase in severity of the season,” the numbers are not dissimilar from a pre-pandemic peak.
“If you combine this with visits for COVID-like illness, hospitals and emergency departments may be strained as the two viruses continue to spread,” he said.