Flu activity appears to have peaked in Minnesota, according to the latest state figures, but the virus remains a threat and has now contributed to more deaths this season than the infamous H1N1 strain did three years ago.
State health officials confirmed 15 more deaths last week, bringing the influenza-related death toll to 75 this winter. More than 200 people were hospitalized that week and nine long-term care facilities reported outbreaks, but both figures were lower than they were in the previous week. Schools are still being hit hard. There were 112 confirmed outbreaks last week, vs. 90 the previous week.
Health officials say it's still not too late to get flu shots as the season typically runs through March.
"We're glad to see that things are slowing down," said Kris Ehresmann, who directs the Minnesota Department of Health's vaccine and influenza programs. "But having said that, we've had such exceptional activity over the last couple of weeks. It's important to keep in mind that 208 hospitalizations over the last week is still a really large number. There still is a large amount of influenza activity."
Public concern over the flu season heightened in December and early January after two otherwise healthy teenagers died from influenza infections. But this season has been like most others in that influenza infections have been harshest on the elderly. Nine in 10 people who died from flu-related complications this season were 65 or older.
There were 67 deaths in the unusual 2009-2010 influenza season, when a new H1N1 strain of the virus circulated globally and sent a high number of children into hospitals with flu-like symptoms. There were only 33 deaths in last winter's relatively mild flu season.
This season, in addition to the deaths, there have been 2,128 flu-related hospitalizations in Minnesota, 123 outbreaks in long-term care facilities and 374 reports of schools in which students had influenza-like illnesses.
The intensity of the flu season has prompted a variety of organizations to take extra precautions. Mayo Clinic in Rochester tightened its visitor policies, and the University of Minnesota loosened its attendance policy to discourage sick students from showing up on campus. At least one elementary school in southeast Minnesota had to close for most of a week because so many students reported flu symptoms.
In Ramsey County, judges have been trying to keep court business moving along by seating extra alternate jurors because so many jurors are getting sick, said David Marchetti, supervisor for jury operations. Still, a murder trial was delayed Thursday because of the flu.
"We're padding the numbers a pinch because of this issue," Marchetti said.