A surge in school absenteeism suggests swine flu is widespread across Minnesota, meaning it has been reported in half of the state's regions.
More than 30 Minnesota schools and dozens of clinics have reported a sharp rise in flu-like illness, signaling that swine flu is apparently spreading widely across the state, health officials said Wednesday.
Based on the reports, Minnesota was bumped up to the highest level of flu activity by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. As of Wednesday, the virus is listed as "widespread," meaning that flu-like illness has been reported in half of the state's regions.
The surge had been expected once school started, and most of the outbreaks have been in the metro area and southern half of the state, "although it's moving," said assistant health commissioner John Linc Stine.
The new cases appear to be similar in severity as the first wave of the pandemic, which began in April, Stine said.
While most cases are relatively mild, about eight people have been hospitalized in the past week, he said.
The pandemic flu virus, also known as H1N1, may not be causing all the illness, but it's likely playing a "significant role in the upsurge," the Health Department said in a prepared statement.
As of Monday, only a handful of schools had reported a spike in flu-like illness, but that jumped to more than 30 by Wednesday, Stine said. Schools have been asked to notify the Health Department if more than 5 percent of students are out with flu-like symptoms, or if three or more children in the same elementary class fall ill.
The state does not try to track every case of the novel flu. But it does receive reports from hospitals and 27 individual clinics, known as "sentinel" sites, as a way of monitoring the spread of the illness.
"We have been anticipating a possible second wave of this illness," said Dr. Sanne Magnan, the state health commissioner. "We strongly suspect that may be starting to happen now."
Although the flu spread quickly in the spring and early summer, the numbers had dropped dramatically until now. But as children have returned to school across the country, new outbreaks have followed, usually by the second week of class, Stine said. "We're in that second week."
A vaccine for the new flu strain was approved by federal authorities Tuesday, but the first doses aren't expected to arrive in Minnesota until October.
On Monday, Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota expert, predicted that the number of H1N1 cases will peak in the next six to eight weeks -- before the vaccine is widely available.
In the meantime, health officials are encouraging people to protect themselves with frequent hand-washing, covering their coughs, and staying home if they're sick.
"Right now, our first line of defense is the basic personal protection measures we have been emphasizing since last spring," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the Minnesota state epidemiologist.
To date, 272 laboratory-confirmed cases of the new flu have been reported in Minnesota, three of them fatal. However, state health officials have been testing only in cases where the patient died or required hospitalization.
Health officials also are urging people to get vaccinated against regular, seasonal flu, which is also likely to be around this fall. The seasonal flu shots are available now.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384
Symptoms include fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.
For more information, go to www.mdhflu.com