The first flu-related death of the season was confirmed in Minnesota last week, as state officials reported a dramatic rise in the number of cases in schools and hospitals.

The victim, who was not identified, was a man in his 60s who had underlying health problems, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

In all, 47 schools reported flu outbreaks last week, compared to 12 the week before, the Health Department reported.

In St. Cloud, a Catholic elementary school, St. Katharine Drexel, reported so many absences that it canceled classes on Thursday and Friday, giving students an early start to winter break.

"This really is the first big uptick," said Kris Ehresmann, the infectious disease director at the Health Department. "Now we're seeing widespread community transmission."

Last week, 65 patients were hospitalized with influenza, more than double the previous week's total of 30. The number of nursing homes reporting outbreaks also doubled, from three to six last week.

Ehresmann said that the flu is spreading faster and earlier than in recent years, but that it's too early to tell how severe this flu season will be. She noted that the past two flu seasons have been unusually mild.

Although schools are closing for winter break, that's not likely to slow down the spread of the flu, Ehresmann said. "[Kids] are going to be with family and friends," she said. "We're just shifting where we're sharing influenza."

She said it's not too late to get a flu shot. "The sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner you'll have protection," she said.

Since October, 165 people in Minnesota have been hospitalized with confirmed cases. Last winter, 33 flu-related deaths were reported statewide.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384