In the wake of the flu's persistent spread among its students, Visitation School in Mendota Heights is starting its Christmas break two days early for some grades in an effort to stem the spread of germs and give the staff the opportunity to sanitize the building.

"After analyzing the situation over the past few days," officials from the all-girls Catholic school said in a notice to families, "we have determined it is in the best interest of the Visitation community to start Christmas break earlier than planned for the Lower School."

That means that classes in the Lower School, attended by students up to fifth grade, are canceled Thursday and Friday. Unaffected are students in the middle school and high school.

The notice added that Visitation has experienced "an unprecedented number of students out with influenza-like illness in the Lower School."

Officials noted that some parents have been keeping "their healthy children home to avoid illness before the Christmas holiday."

While the Lower School closed Thursday and Friday, staffers will be "deep cleaning and sanitizing."

The latest response by Visitation follows other measures taken by the school to combat the flu's spread. Those include limiting interactions among students in different grades, postponing the Christmas concert and canceling several field trips.

Even with those tactics, the school notice said, "the cases of new illnesses in the Lower School classrooms continue to rise."

The St. Paul School District has been offering vaccinations for students and families. Roughly 10 schools in the district have reported outbreaks.

The state Department of Health says the flu is now officially "widespread" in Minnesota, a sign that this year's flu season will be harsher than most.

Last Thursday, state health officials reported that 65 Minnesotans were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms for the week ending Dec. 6. That hospitalization tally marked the highest total for the first week of December in the past six years.

The "widespread" designation means the flu has been detected in four of the eight reporting districts in the state, which has also reported 64 school outbreaks of flu-like illness and seven outbreaks in long-term care facilities so far this season. Since the flu season started, more than 185 Minnesotans have been hospitalized with symptoms.

State health officials have reported one pediatric death suspected to be related to the flu so far this year. The death of Owatonna High School student Shannon Zwanziger on Dec. 9 came after the 17-year-old suffered flu-like illness, but it could take many days or weeks before tests confirm whether flu played a role.

Earlier this week, Fairview Health Services tightened its visitors' policy at its hospitals due to widespread flu.

The health care provider is screening all visitors for flu-like symptoms and exposure to those with the flu. Visitors must also be at least 5 years old. Patients and visitors are also being instructed on hand hygiene.

The health system's sites include Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville, Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Fairview Northland Medical Center in Princeton, Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, the University of Minnesota Medical Center and University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis and Fairview Range Medical Center in Hibbing.

On Monday, a hospital west of the Twin Cities put in place even more stringent visitor rules. Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield doesn't want children of any age visiting patients, with the only exception being young siblings being allowed in the birth center.