This season’s flu numbers are low in comparison to previous years. This includes the River Valley, where Mercy leaders are grateful for a mild season as patients continue to be treated for COVID-19.
A report from the Arkansas Department of Health dated March 6, 2021, indicates the state remains at a “minimal” level for influenza. The report shows 17 Arkansans have died from flu this season, compared with 125 deaths in 2019-20 and a recent high of 227 in 2017-18.
Dr. Paul Bean, chief of medical affairs at Mercy Fort Smith, said precautions taken during the COVID-19 outbreak most likely contributed to the mild flu season.
“Influenza is spread in a similar way as COVID-19, and the measures we used to limit COVID-19 transmission mitigated this year’s flu season,” Dr. Bean said. Some of those measures include wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and limiting activities, among others.
As behaviors regarding COVID-19 precautions change, the influenza transmission could increase but likely not until the fall, he said. Flu is spread most often through a person’s cough or sneeze, and someone can pick up the virus by touching a hard surface that has been exposed to it, then touching the nose or mouth. Therefore, Dr. Bean recommended continued diligence to help prevent any possible spread.
So, if this flu season was mild, what could that mean for the next season? Dr. Bean said it’s “certainly possible” for residents to be more vulnerable to flu when the next season begins.
“Every year, there is antigenic drift with influenza,” he said. “The previous year’s infections tend to offer some protection from the next year’s influenza. With this being such a light flu season, that protection could be less.”
Mercy doctors recommend a yearly flu shot, especially for vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, health care workers and people with underlying health conditions. And it’s not too late to get a flu shot, even as this season winds down.
“I would still recommend the flu shot this season,” Dr. Bean said. “It will help to protect from those late sporadic flu infections and may help some with next year’s infection as well.”
Kay McCarley, director of operations for Mercy Fort Smith clinics, said hundreds of area patients utilized the drive-up flu shots provided this year for patients at Mercy Convenient Care – 79th Street in Fort Smith. The drive-up shots, which began Oct. 1, allowed patients to remain in their vehicle through the entire process, which helped reduce the number of patients in the waiting area and minimized patient exposure because they are administered in the patient’s car instead of the patient coming into the clinic.
Although the drive-up shots are no longer available this season, Mercy primary care providers and Convenient Care locations continue to offer flu shots upon request. McCarley believes Mercy will continue to provide drive-up shots in coming years.
“The drive-up flu shots offered a great, convenient opportunity for someone to quickly get their flu shot,” McCarley said. “Certainly, we want everyone to get their flu shot each year, and we are pleased that so many took advantage of the drive-up opportunity this season.”
Learn more about the flu and options available at Mercy at www.mercy.net/service/flu-vaccine/.