State health officials reported a sharp increase in hospitalizations related to influenza last week, along with the first pediatric death, suggesting that Minnesota is in for a difficult flu season.
An alert from the Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday urged people to seek vaccination before the annual flu season reaches it traditional peak — usually in January or February. The circulating strain, known as H3N2 influenza, has been associated in past years with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths in the elderly and children.
“We still have a lot of flu season left,” said Kris Ehresmann, the Health Department’s infectious disease director.
The seasonal germ factory of holiday gatherings helped produce a spike in hospitalizations that is typical in the first week of each new year. In its first report for 2018, the state said 1,765 people have been hospitalized for the flu this season, up from a total of 1,021 in its final report for 2017.
Flu outbreaks in the state’s long-term care facilities increased last week as well, but outbreaks of influenza-like illness in schools remained sporadic — with many schools closed for the holiday break.
While H3N2 is “one of the more severe strains,” it was accounted for in this year’s vaccine, said Jennifer Heath, an education supervisor in the Health Department’s immunization program.
Studies have shown that a well-matched vaccine can be 40 percent to 60 percent effective at reducing the risk to the overall population. Rumors have spread that this year’s vaccine is less effective, but Heath said those rumors trace back to a December article in the New England Journal of Medicine that quoted vaccine effectiveness rates in Australia.
“That has, actually, very little relevance to what’s going to happen here,” she said.
Flu is primarily spread by infected people coughing or sneezing droplets that land on other people nearby.
Symptoms include fever, fatigue and body aches and generally pass within a few days.
But they can become severe, especially among the elderly and people with underlying respiratory conditions.
Hospitals have been preparing for a double whammy this year, with flu season increasing demand for IV solutions, which are in limited supply due to manufacturing slowdowns in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
Fairview hospitals in the Twin Cities conserved their supply of IV medications by using equivalent oral medications whenever possible.
“We currently remain well-positioned to care for our patients,” a Fairview spokesperson said, “including those being treated for the flu.”