Hopes for an early peak to Minnesota's flu season were premature, according to new figures released Thursday, which showed yet another spike in influenza-related deaths, hospitalizations and outbreaks in schools and nursing homes.
Thirty-three deaths were confirmed in the second week of January, bringing the state's total to 60 this season. Almost nine in 10 of the new deaths involved Minnesotans 65 and older, and other cases involved adults with other health problems, said Kris Ehresmann, who directs the vaccine and immunization programs for the Minnesota Department of Health.
The number of long-term care facilities with confirmed flu cases doubled to 107, and more than 90 schools reported outbreaks in the second week of January, as children returning from holiday vacations spread germs among classmates.
The season is deadlier than last year's flu season, when 33 deaths were confirmed. And the state is on pace to see more deaths than in the 2009-2010 flu pandemic, when an unusual H1N1 strain of the virus circulated around spring break and sent a high number of children into hospitals for flu-like symptoms. There were 67 deaths that flu season.
"While we have had some very, very mild seasons, we can't be surprised when we have a season like this," Ehresmann said. "This is what flu can do and, in fact, it can be more serious than this."
One of the latest victims was 76-year-old Loren Nelson of Long Lake, whose family was hoping to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary in March; the viral infection was listed in an obituary as the cause of his Jan. 11 death. The Air Force veteran and retired electrical engineer had been battling cancer and stroke symptoms as well.
"This season is very typical for influenza in that ... it really hits harder for people who are over 65," Ehresmann said.
While the death of an otherwise healthy 14-year-old girl from St. Louis Park drew public attention to the current outbreak and caused a rush for flu shots this month, there have been no comparable youth fatalities in the state since then. On Dec. 30, Max Schwolert, 17, of Texas, died of flu complications at a St. Paul hospital.
Two-thirds of the 1,842 flu-related hospitalizations have involved senior citizens. The dominant strain in the state this season is known as H3N2, which historically has been harder on older adults, Ehresmann said.
Not too late for shots
On Monday, half the student body at St. James Evangelical Lutheran School in southwest Minnesota was sick, prompting the school to cancel classes for three days this week.
Hopes that the season might end early surfaced partly because it started so early. The spread of influenza reached the "widespread'' stage charted by health officials in mid-December -- 11 weeks earlier than in the state's 2011-2012 flu season, and seven weeks earlier than in the 2010-2011 season. But there is no sign of cases leveling off.
While vaccine supplies are drying up at some clinics, Ehresmann said people should still seek them out because the typical flu season runs through March.
Unlike previous years, when vaccine shortages occurred because of manufacturing problems, Ehresmann said it would be a good sign if Minnesotans used up this year's abundant supply of flu shots and nasal mists.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744