By Sarah Komar
One year after a winter that featured the worst peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials are concerned rising COVID cases combined with the influenza season could strain hospital resources.
“It would definitely add to increased stress on our hospital systems,” said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, chief medical officer and medical director for immunizations and outbreak response for the Arkansas Department of Health. “A lower number of COVID cases, but influenza could potentially make up the difference in a high level of hospitalizations again. We know that the flu puts a lot of people in the hospital.”
COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in Arkansas, with active cases up 51% by Dec. 2 since hitting a trough on Nov. 9.
The U.S. flu season occurs in the fall and winter, peaking December-February, the same time period in which record-high cases of COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals across Arkansas and the country last winter. Arkansas experienced flu cases last winter far below previous years’ levels primarily because fewer students were in school and more people were staying home and masking up in public, Dillaha said.
But this year, with mask mandates nearly nonexistent and thousands more children in school, hospital visits for influenza-like illnesses are expected to rise. Dillaha thinks “we’ll have a real flu season this year, as opposed to last year.”
So far, caseloads are light and the current flu level is rated low. Since Sept. 27, 2021, the state health department reported 282 positive influenza tests, while also acknowledging “there are many more people actually affected than the report shows.” By contrast, Arkansas reported 1,226 COVID-19 cases in one day on Dec. 2.
Dillaha said she is watching pediatric respiratory illness caseloads closely and is concerned about the limited capacity of hospitals in Arkansas to handle pediatric respiratory cases in small children if the flu and COVID-19 surge again.
The delta variant of the coronavirus affects children more severely than any previous variant. Children are also the group most likely to get severely ill from seasonal viruses like respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. In addition to children, the elderly are at risk of severe flu cases, Dillaha said.
Dr. Jessica Snowden, division chief for pediatric infectious diseases at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, said her team is staying vigilant and is expecting to see more flu admissions during the season’s peak. Baseline COVID-19 admissions are still higher than they were before the delta surge.
“So far, knock on wood, we aren’t seeing a ton of flu, but we are seeing a lot of other viral illnesses co-infected with COVID-19 that make kids much more sick than either one alone do,” Snowden said. Later, she added, “And it speaks to the importance of making sure we’re protecting from everything that we can.”
Dr. Amanda Novack, medical director of infection prevention at Baptist Health, the state’s largest healthcare system, said her team is anticipating more flu hospitalizations this year.
“This pandemic has taught a lot of humility, and nobody knows the future,” Novack said. “But I think we would be foolish to not be prepared for a possible surge,” Novack said.
She is concerned the public lacks the immunity that would follow a regular flu season, and lack of that immunity could put people at greater risk this winter.
Like Snowden, Novack feels confident her home-base hospital in Little Rock is prepared for the winter, and it has ample ventilators for severe cases.
Still, an influx of severely ill patients would be hard on a staff already exhausted from the pandemic and stretched thin by a nursing shortage affecting the entire U.S., she said. Novack wishes more people would wear masks in public, get vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza and stay home from school or work when sick with any virus, she said.
“I think we’re all just pretty tired,” Novack said. “I would love for all of this to be over.”