Sixty-five Minnesotans were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms last week and the virus reached “widespread” status across the state, the Health Department said Thursday in the latest sign that this year’s flu season will be harsher than most.
The new designation means that influenza has been detected in four of the eight reporting districts in the state, which has also reported 64 school outbreaks of influenza-like illness and seven outbreaks in long-term care facilities so far this season.
The number of Minnesotans hospitalized during the week ending Dec. 6 marked the highest total for the first week of December in the past six years.
Since the flu season started, more than 185 Minnesotans have been hospitalized with flu symptoms, with many cases involving a specific influenza A strain that has been known in previous years to cause more severe illnesses.
“The dominant strain appears to be H3, which in previous seasons meant there were more hospitalizations, more deaths and more disease in general,” said Karen Martin, a state health epidemiologist.
H3 flu strains have historically been hardest on the elderly and on very young children, Martin said, adding, “but we are seeing an incredible amount of school outbreaks right now.”
In St. Paul, about 10 schools have reported flu-like outbreaks in the last two weeks, even though the district has been promoting vaccination and hand-washing, and urging students to stay home if they have a fever or other flu symptoms.
“It’s a little earlier than other school years, but it still seems to be very spotty,” said Mary Yackley, the district’s supervisor for health and wellness. Some schools in the district have reported no increase in absenteeism, she said.
St. Paul schools are offering vaccinations for students and families at academic activities and conferences.
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of patients visiting a health care provider with flu-like symptoms was running ahead of the average year, but the number of hospital-confirmed cases was about average.
Six other states and Puerto Rico had also reported widespread flu activity as of Nov. 29, a sharp increase from the previous week, and that number seemed sure to rise when the CDC issues its own update for the week ending Dec. 6.
In Minnesota, state health officials are still encouraging people to get flu shots, despite reports that the vaccine is less effective this year and poorly matched to the dominant strains in circulation. Flu season typically does not peak until sometime between December and February, so people could still contract the virus for several weeks to come. In an interview with the Star Tribune published Thursday, Mayo Clinic pediatrician and vaccine researcher Robert Jacobson said even though the protection is weaker it’s still protection.
“People who get the flu shot have better protection even when there’s a mismatch … and they’re less likely to spread the flu to someone else,” he said.
The Minnesota Department of Health has reported one pediatric death related to the flu so far this year. The death of an Owatonna High School teenager on Tuesday came after she suffered flu-like illness, but it could take days or weeks before tests confirm whether influenza played any role. Her high school is among the schools that reported to the state that more than 5 percent of its students were absent due to influenza-like illness.
Flu achieves the “widespread” designation in Minnesota almost every influenza season. Last season, the designation was announced in late December, but often influenza doesn’t reach that level in the state until after the New Year.