Flu-related hospitalizations declined for the second straight week in Minnesota, offering hope that an influenza season that started early will also end early.

While 2,601 patients have been hospitalized for flu already this season — nearly tripling the total in the last two seasons combined — there were only 264 such cases in Minnesota in the week ending Dec. 17. That preliminary total is down from 400 the prior week and nearly 600 in the week before that, according to Thursday's state influenza update.

Its possible that the state is just in for an early flu season, rather than a severe one, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

An early influenza surge in Australia hit children particularly hard and raised global fears of a bad flu season. However, that wave ended early, along with others in the Southern Hemisphere, Osterholm said.

"They were normal flu seasons" in those regions, he said. "Just out of whack timewise."

State health leaders said they aren't taking chances, urging vaccinations and vigilance as Minnesota reaches the germ-mixing holiday season. Even in a typical influenza season, an initial wave of infections caused by A strains of the virus in January and February is followed by a second but smaller B-strain wave.

A brief issued this week by the Minnesota EHR Consortium, a data analysis partnership of the state's largest hospital systems, found that the state is on track for its worst flu season in seven years, and possibly the last 50 years.

"It's not unprecedented to have two separate increases," said Peter Bodurtha, a data scientist at Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute, a partner in the consortium. "It really depends on what happens the rest of the year. But being this far ahead of the curve this early, with this much of the season left, that's not a good position to be in."

Flu levels were suppressed the past two years by COVID-19 and the public health response to the pandemic, including social distancing and mask wearing. Flu has re-emerged this year in the absence of those practices — and with only steady levels of COVID-19 rather than a wintertime surge.

Thursday's state pandemic situation update showed a slight increase in coronavirus infections identified through testing at clinics and state sites — from about 750 infections per day in mid-November to 900 per day in the first week of December. However, case numbers declined slightly in mid-December.

The number of Minnesota hospital inpatient beds filled with COVID-19 patients similarly increased from 419 on Nov. 15 to 633 on Dec. 7, but declined to 566 on Tuesday.

Risks remain highest in the elderly, who made up 72 of the 76 COVID-19 deaths identified so far in Minnesota since Dec. 2.

That risk disparity makes it particularly frustrating that only 58% of seniors in Minnesota are up to date with recommended COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist. While 95% of seniors have received some vaccine, those that received shots months ago have lost immunity, she said.

"We are not using this tool (to prevent COVID-19) in the way that we should," she said.

Seniors are at elevated risk from influenza as well. The state has identified 71 flu-related deaths so far, with the median age being 82. School-related outbreaks are declining after an early surge in November, but the 19 flu outbreaks in long-term care facilities last week brought Minnesota's total to 58.

Wisconsin this week reported its first flu-related death in a child, but Minnesota has not reported any so far.