More than 120 Minnesotans were hospitalized with the flu last week -- nearly twice the number of the week before -- and state health officials reported the second flu-related death of the season.

The numbers confirm that the winter flu season is off to an early start, said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health. "We've definitely seen the uptick much earlier than we usually see," she said.

In addition, officials reported that a woman in her 90s, who had underlying health problems, died of complications from the flu. The victim, the second Minnesotan to die of the flu in two weeks, was not identified because of privacy rules.

In nursing homes, the number of outbreaks declined last week, to two from six the week before. The number of school outbreaks dropped from 51 to 47 last week, right before the start of winter break. The number of hospitalizations was 123, up from 65 the week before.

Ehresmann said that after several years of unusually mild flu seasons, "this season could seem more severe just because it's normal." Last winter, 33 flu-related deaths were reported in Minnesota.

She said the type of flu circulating this year tends to be "a more serious strain," which might explain the rise in hospitalizations. And she encouraged people to get flu shots to protect themselves.

"There's plenty of influenza vaccine out there," Ehresmann said, adding: "There's no reason to wait because we know that there will be more flu activity continuing."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384