The flu virus has killed 49 people in Arkansas since November, and an earlier peak than usual in insurance claims indicates the number of deaths could continue to climb.

There were 13 people, including an 8-year-old boy, who died from the flu in Arkansas the week ending Jan. 13. Every state in the nation is experiencing problems with the flu.

“It’s a bad flu season of epidemic proportions,” said Dr. Sean Baker, Mercy Clinic’s department chair for primary care. “It’s been a bad year ... It's one of the worst seasons in the last decade in Fort Smith."

Baker went on to say that people should be concerned but "not panic" and "be wise."

According to Zena Featherston Marshal, director of Communication and Community Partnerships for Fort Smith Public Schools, the district reported five schools with more than 9 percent absenteeism in the past week. Three local elementary schools reported the high absenteeism rate Wednesday. Two schools reported the high rate Jan. 11 and 12. The local district returned to school Jan. 3 after a break that started Dec. 20.

Practicing good hygiene with consistant hand washing and coughing into the crook of an arm is strongly suggested. Even wearing a mask in public is suggested by the doctor for those who have a lowered immunity or chronic disease condition. For those with flu-like symptoms, getting to a clinic for diagnosis and staying home from work or school is suggested to decrease spreading of the virus, he added.

"It's going to take a community effort to get through this," Baker said.

People who think they may have the flu may really have some other illness like a bacterial infection that would be treated differently than the flu, with antibiotics, the doctor added.

Although insurance claims for flu illnesses have typically spiked early to late February in Arkansas, a new jagged style of graph line was drawn earlier this month after the return to school from the Christmas break.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health’s weekly flu report, the number of claims typically reaches an apex in February and then trend downward through the spring. Paid insurance claims jumped back up the second week of January, likely due to the return of school, to about 5,250 claims.

Meg Mirivel, public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Health, said the return to school from Christmas break has been discussed as a potential reason for the spike in claims and reiterated Baker's statements that people who have flu-like symptoms should stay home.

"It can be very scary for the young and old and pregnant women, or anyone whose immune system is comprimised," Mirivel said. "If you're sick it's really important to stay home until your fever has subsided for 24 hours without medication. You may feel fine, but you can spread it to others."

Insurance claims

The highest number of paid insurance claims in one week last flu season was about 3,500. The highest average number of paid claims between 2012 to 2017 is about 2,500.

Cold weather, which the flu virus likes, Baker said, is a factor in the spread of the virus. But so is people staying indoors in “shared environments.”

The flu vaccine this year has not been resistant to the A strain of influenza, Baker noted.

“Among flu antigen tests that can distinguish between influenza A and B virus types, 74 percent were influenza A, and 26 percent were influenza B,” the ADH flu report states.

Since Oct. 1, more than 22,000 positive flu tests have been reported to the ADH online database by health-care providers. In the second week of 2018, 73 of the state’s 75 counties reported flu cases. Sebastian, Crawford and Franklin counties were among the areas with the highest number of flu reports.

The emergency room at Mercy Fort Smith was so overloaded with patients over the past month for flu-like symptoms it opened its first flu clinic Jan. 10 at 2717 S. 74th St. near the main hospital. In its first nine days of operation, the flu clinic saw 543 patients, with 250 of those testing positive. Mercy’s convenient care and urgent care clinics saw 1,857 patients over the same time period, with 346 of those testing positive.

The average wait time at the seasonal flu clinic have been about 30 to 45 minutes, according to Mercy Fort Smith spokesman Todd Nighswonger.

More than 1,180 patients sought medical care at the Mercy emergency room, a “higher than normal” rate, Nighswonger added.

Baker said that although the flu shot is not as successful against the A strain this year because of the mutations the virus has made, a flu shot will still “reduce the severity and longevity” of an illness, especially in high-risk categories.