Flu season in full swing in area, much of state

Published 1:40 pm Thursday, January 23, 2014

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to the flu in Minnesota.

The good news: There have been far fewer flu deaths than last year.

The bad news: Flu season is in full swing right now.

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The number of flu deaths is down from last year, when 186 people died in Minnesota from the flu between October and April. According to a Jan. 11 Minnesota Department of Health report, no one age 18 or younger has died from the flu this season.

But just because there have been fewer flu-related deaths this year doesn’t mean people should take the flu any less seriously, according to Mower County Community Health Director Lisa Kocer.

“It can be very serious,” she said.

Local health officials confirmed the flu season in Mower County, like much of the state, is peaking right now and should continue for the next few months.

“Influenza is widespread now,” Kocer said. “Basically it’s all over. None of us are really out of the woods.”

Kathy Stratton, infections prevention and control coordinator at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, said the flu season started peaking around the holidays — likely when groups and families got together — and the heaviest part of flu season typically lasts through February and into March.

Last year’s flu season peaked earlier than normal.

This flu season has seen a resurgence of the H1N1 strain, which was a major concern around 2009. Unlike most flu seasons when young children and people age 65 and older are most effected, Kocer and Stratton said more young adults and middle-aged people have tested positive this year. When the H1N1 strain first came to the U.S., it also affected middle-aged and young adults more than the elderly.

H1N1 isn’t as big a concern now as it was when it first surfaced, in part because people have more immunities now. Stratton also noted health leaders didn’t know how virulent the flu strain would be, but it’s proved comparable to other common strains.

The H1N1 strain was included in this year’s flu vaccine, but Stratton confirmed people with flu shots have still tested positive for that strain. That’s no surprise to Kocer or Stratton, as a flu shot doesn’t guarantee people won’t get sick. The shots build immunities and likely mean a person would contract a milder case of the flu if he or she becomes sick.

“The flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective, but it’s still the best thing out there,” Stratton said.

If they haven’t already, Stratton and Kocer urged people to get vaccinated, since flu season often lasts well into March.

“It’s still not too late,” Stratton said.

Along with flu shots, Stratton and Kocer recommended people continue to wash their hands, cover their coughs and avoid touching their eyes nose and mouth whenever possible, along with other basic precautions to prevent the flu. People can have the flu and be contagious for 24 hours before feeling the symptoms, according to Stratton, which is another reason precautions are important.

Unlike some Minnesota clinics, Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin hasn’t taken precautions urging people with the flu to stay home. However, the clinic always has signs up asking people not to visit patients in the hospital if they themselves are ill.

Along with the flu, Stratton noted there’s been an uptick in strep throat cases, but, like the flu, that is common this time of year.

Though the flu season is in full swing, Kocer said there haven’t been any reported outbreaks at area schools or senior homes, which are common during most flu seasons.

Flu symptoms include a fever, cough, sore throat, headache or body ache, chills and fatigue. While symptoms are similar to the common cold, the flu hits harder and faster than the gradual symptoms of a cold.

“With the influenza, it hits hard,” Stratton said.