Minnesota flu cases soar; state confirms 23 deaths in a week

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Minnesota is in the midst of the most severe flu season it has seen in several years, according to Dr. Edward Ehlinger, state health commissioner.

The health department's latest report shows 23 people with laboratory-confirmed influenza died between Dec. 30 and Jan. 5, bringing the statewide total of flu-related deaths to 27.

In the same week, more than 400 people were hospitalized with the flu. Since the season began in October, 1,121 people have been hospitalized.

The health department says 23 of the 27 deaths reported were people age 65 and older.

In the four remaining cases of flu deaths under the age of 65, only one was under the age of 18.

Max Schwolert, 17, of Texas was visiting his grandparents in Wisconsin when he fell ill. Schwolert died Dec. 29 at Regions Hospital in St. Paul from flu-related illnesses.

Not included in the latest flu numbers is 14-year-old Carly Christenson of St. Louis Park, who died Tuesday from complications of influenza.

In the past several years of milder flu seasons, about 30 to 40 flu-related deaths were reported each year, state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said at a news conference Thursday.

The first week of 2013 proves that this year's flu season is on a much faster pace.

John Hick, an emergency physician at Hennepin County Medical Center, tells USA TODAY that the speed of the flu's spread "has been pretty much unparalleled." He thinks the uptick could be due to people returning from holiday travel and children going back to school.

Just as the outbreak spreads quickly, so does the virus make speedy work of attacking the body. KARE 11 spoke with a 13-year-old in Plymouth who recounted her Christmas vacation bout with the flu that sent her to the hospital. She's since recovered her health.

Health officials had earlier described south central Minnesota as the part of the state hit hardest by the virus. But last week's wave of cases shows the outbreak is spread through the state. The Duluth News Tribune reports six of Minnesota's fatalities have come at Duluth hospitals.

The flu is most threatening to the oldest and youngest residents. KAAL visited an Austin school where teachers are coaching kids on proper hand-washing. The Mower County health director says flu season usually peaks in February, but state epidemiologist Lynfield thinks Minnesota is likely at the peak of this year's outbreak and she expects to see a downturn in the coming weeks.

KARE 11 visited a senior center in Bloomington that suspended activities that would bring large groups together. Presbyterian Homes is also delivering more food to residents' rooms rather than having them come to the dining room.

Vaccinations

State officials emphasize the keys to preventing the flu remain the same: get a flu shot, wash your hands, cover your cough, and stay home if you're sick.

Health Commissioner Ehlinger confirms that there is an adequate supply of vaccines in Minnesota and encourages everyone to get a flu shot.

Although the immunizations are not 100 percent effective, it's the best treatment available. Lynfield says the influenza vaccine is different from other vaccines because it's constantly responding to new strains of the virus.

The dominant strain circulating throughout the state is H3N2, a variation of "Influenza A." Lynfield says the current flu vaccine is designed to protect against H3N2.

Hospitals

Director of emergency preparedness Jane Braun says hospitals and clinics in the metro and south central Minnesota are under stress with more patients being admitted with the flu or flu-like symptoms.

Health care systems are already implementing protocols to accomodate the high volume of patients by changing staffing patterns, opening new patient areas, sharing supplies and coordinating with other hospitals to transfer patients where beds are available.

Ehlinger is encouraging staff at health care and long-term facilities to be immunized.

Absenteeism

Ramifications of the outbreak include lost productivity at Minnesota businesses. KSTP reports the Red Cross is concerned about finding enough healthy donors to keep the blood supply flowing during what is already the lean time of year for finding volunteers.

But for people who have the flu, being absent from work or school is preferable to soldiering through the illness. State Rep. John Lesch says he'll use the outbreak to renew his call for a law requiring that employers provide paid sick days to their workers.

Lesch tells MPR that food service and child care workers are examples of fields in which many cannot afford to take an unpaid day off. Lesch was not able to push his idea in person at the Capitol, though. He's home sick with the flu.

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