Dr. Christine Hartford, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University, is warning local residents to get the influenza vaccine.
She works as a pediatric hospitalist at St. Bernards Medical Center and during the last week or more she’s noticed a significant uptick in respiratory illnesses at the hospital.
“I worked two hospital shifts last week and every single pediatric admission I had was a respiratory virus infection,” Hartford said. “They were all either RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus), flu or both. We anticipate an increase in COVID infections over the next couple of weeks as well. All things combined, it makes it as important as ever to get vaccinated to protect yourself and others.”
According to the Arkansas Department of Health’s latest weekly influenza report, Arkansas reported “Very High” or 11 out of 13 for Influenza-Like-Illness (ILI) activity level indicators. Arkansas has already reported nine influenza-related deaths this flu season after experiencing 30 total in the 2021-22 flu season.
Following two years of relatively low flu and RSV numbers, Hartford believes we could be in for an unusual winter, especially considering what’s already happening this early in the season. She’s also concerned about the number of individuals who will be infected with multiple viruses – such as influenza, RSV, and COVID – at the same time.
“The seasonal patterns of these infections are out the window post-COVID,” Hartford said. “We were seeing RSV all summer, and RSV is usually a late fall to early spring virus. We’re already getting bombarded with it. I feel like we can’t count on things acting like they have in the past, and it’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen.”
Hartford agrees with medical leaders who believe measures the public took over the last two years to prevent COVID contributed to significant reductions in flu and RSV, but now that the majority of people are no longer as diligent about masking, hand washing, and social distancing, there is a resurgence of respiratory viruses.
“We’re not even in peak season and children’s hospitals are already getting hit pretty hard,” Hartford said. “If it just keeps going like you’d expect your normal flu and RSV season to go, it has potential to be pretty bad, and I’m concerned about what that could potentially mean for hospital capacity.”
Vaccinations and good hygiene habits are the best preventative measures, she said. While there is not a vaccine for RSV, there is for flu and COVID. The strains that are included in this year’s flu vaccine are expected to be a good match with the most common strains that are circulating.
“Also, it’s important to remember that if you get vaccinated for flu and COVID and still contract either virus, you’re much less likely to have a severe illness than someone who is unvaccinated,” Hartford said. “The vaccine gives your immune system a head start in the fight, so you shouldn’t get as sick or be sick for as long.”
The influenza and COVID vaccines are now available and recommended for children six months of age and older, and boosters of the COVID vaccine are recommended for those five years and older.
There are currently 226 active COVID-19 cases in Craighead County, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Since the pandemic started in March 2020, there have been 44,533 total reported cases in the county and 365 deaths attributed to the virus.
“Anyone who is around a baby who can’t get vaccinated, they especially need to make sure they receive their vaccine to help protect that vulnerable individual,” Hartford said. “It’s also really important to just stay home if you have any cold symptoms at all. RSV could be just a sniffle for an adult, but if you pass that to a child, it has the potential to make them very sick. We all have to look out for each other.”