After a winter full of fevers, headaches, and sore muscles, flu season is almost over.
The latest report from the Arkansas Department of Health shows a big drop in the number of people who report flu-like symptoms or test positive for the flu.
The report issued Tuesday brought welcome news for the state’s chief medical officer. “We had almost 200 deaths that we’ve counted so far,” Dr. Gary Wheeler said. “We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of hospitalizations. We’ve had medical staffs and ICUs overwhelmed by the number of flu-related cases. And I think we’ve demonstrated how limited our capacity is when we have a serious or significant flu outbreak in the state.”
Wheeler said this flu season was no longer than the typical season, though it was much more intense. He believes the virus ran its course, and that the rate of infection has fallen because everyone who was likely to get sick has already gotten sick.
“Considering where we were, we’ve seen, probably, a 75 to 80 percent drop in the number of cases per week from the peak levels that we saw just a few weeks ago,” Wheeler stated.
The report classified the flu as being of “moderate” intensity, compared to “high” intensity the week before. Wheeler predicted that Arkansas would return to its baseline rate within the next two to three weeks.
Nurses at MedExpress in North Little Rock have noticed a steep drop in the number of people testing positive for flu. But they mentioned that this year’s flu did not cause the textbook symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose. The result was a temporary shortage of flu tests.
“People often came in, even without fever, that tested positive for flu,” said Callie Fletcher, APRN, the lead nurse practitioner at MedExpress. “Diarrhea, vomiting, even just a sore throat, were testing positive for flu.”
One reason experts believe so many people got sick this year is the ineffectiveness of the vaccine. Its efficacy was only 40 percent.
“Not that much worse than average, but still not what we really want,” Wheeler stated. “I mean, when an individual goes in to get a vaccine, they expect to be protected.”
Wheeler added that, though many people who received the vaccine did get sick, their symptoms were often minor. He said it did a good job of people from dying or needed to be hospitalized because of the virus.
Fletcher said lots of people got the shot, especially as flu season reached its peak in December, January, and February. She and Wheeler agreed that getting people to trust the vaccine next year could determine whether the next season is as intense as this season was.
“It’s a hard sell to sell a vaccine that’s not great to the public,” Wheeler admitted. “And we’ve gotta do a better job of convincing the public that, even though it’s, may not be a great vaccine, that it is protective, and you increase your chances of being well by getting the vaccine.”
“We are hopeful that, next year, they do the same thing,” Fletcher said, “especially with how bad the flu season was this year. We hope that the number of people who get their flu vaccine increases next year.”
Wheeler added that, if there is something to be happy about this year, it is that there were no reports of pregnant women dying of the flu. He said typically only half of expectant mothers get a flu vaccine, putting themselves and their babies at risk. He did not have data yet for the number of pregnant women who got the shot this year.