Flu season hits early

Published 10:25 am Friday, December 19, 2014

The early influenza surge is continuing across the state, and it’s hitting Austin early this season too.

“Even a couple weeks ago it started climbing,” Mayo Clinic Health System — Austin and Albert Lea Infection, Prevention and Control Nurse Kathleen Stratton said.

Minnesota health officials reported a surge in flu outbreaks at schools and long-term care facilities. Through the end of last week, 203 new schools reported outbreaks, compared with 19 the previous week.

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That raised the number of Minnesota schools reporting outbreaks this season to 271.

Epidemiologist Brad Krier of the Minnesota Department of Health said they haven’t seen that level of flu activity since the 2009 pandemic.

The department on Thursday also reported 60 hospitalized flu patients last week. That was down from 123 a week earlier, but raised the season total of hospitalized cases to 309. Two pediatric deaths from influenza have been reported this season.

Though flu season typical lasts from October to May, Stratton said they usually don’t see this big of an incline until February or March.

Part of the problem this year is the strain. The most common strain has been H3N2, a subtype of influenza A. Stratton said although the flu vaccine had this strain in it, the virus has drifted.

“The virus changed so now the strain that’s in the vaccine is not working,” she said.

That’s not to say getting the vaccine isn’t still important. Stratton noted the vaccine could still help people either avoid the virus or only get a more mild case. She said the vaccine is still the number one preventative measure to avoid the flu.

“If you haven’t gotten the flu vaccine, you should still get it,” she said.

Stratton stressed the importance of not only protecting people who get the vaccine, but also protecting those around them. On average, Stratton said about 30,000 people die from the flu in the U.S. each year.

Stratton said people need to make sure to wash their hands after sneezing, coughing, rubbing their nose, or even touching common surfaces like doorknobs or light switches. If someone contracts the flu, she said to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. She also pointed out that going into work can not only get others sick but can also lengthen the person’s illness.

Stratton said this virus has been spreading to all age groups at this point.

Since the flu hit early, it fell into the Christmas season, which could have made it spread farther. Christmas programs, sporting events and many Christmas shoppers out and about may have helped spread the virus.

“When you get a lot of people in close confined quarters, that’s the perfect place for spreading,” Stratton said.

Providers have stopped testing for the flu per recommendation from the Department of Health, since the flu has been found in the community. Stratton said not everyone who has the flu should come to see the doctor, even though a new flu-vanquishing drug has been advertised. She said care providers try to save that medication for people who are high risk, such as very young or older people.

For more information about when to seek medical help for the flu, visit www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/flu/basics/flumedhelp.pdf. To see the flu impact in different areas, visit www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/flu/stats/flustats49.pdf.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report