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UPDATED: Flu Rates Skyrocket in Minnesota; 27 Deaths Now Reported

More than 1,100 hospitalized; Minnesota Department of Health urges precautions. So far, absences at Minnetonka Schools are consistent with past years.

This flu season is proving brutal in Minnesota, with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) now reporting 27 deaths in the state, including 23 that officials have been able to confirm as flu-related since Dec. 30.

Since the start of the influenza season, 1,121 people have been hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza, according to the MDH reports for the 2012–2013 season. That number includes 401 hospitalizations for the week ending Jan. 5.

MDH officials say the number of those hospitalized throughout the state rivals those seen during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, but that there is no evidence that the current wave of illnesses is prompted by a new virus.

"What is occurring has happened before," Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger said in a news release. "This is what influenza looks like, this is what it can do. That’s why we stress every year the importance of prevention measures, such as getting a flu shot, covering your cough, washing your hands and staying home if you are ill. We never know at the beginning of a flu season what it’s going to look like.”

In addition to the 27 deaths reported so far, MDH officials say there were 28 outbreaks in long-term care facilities over the past week.

Of those hospitalized, 62 percent over older than 65 and 15 percent and younger than 25, Ehlinger said. However, the list of victims includes two otherwise healthy teens: Max Schwolert, 17, and Carly Christenson, a 14-year-old St. Louis Park girl who died Tuesday.

The 27 deaths in Minnesota so far include a total of four younger than 65, Ehlinger said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.  Authorities are still evaluating other factors that might have contributed to the deaths, including other medical conditions and infections.

"Influenza is a severe illness," Ehlinger said. "People die from influenza. ... Because [the vaccination] is not 100 percent effective, it's important that more people get the vaccine" to reduce the overall pool of infected people who could pass influenza to more vulnerable populations.

As for this weekend's Catholic masses in Minnesota, both signs of peace and wine distribution from communal chalices will, for now, go on as normal. Several dioceses across the country, including Boston, have told priests they can suspend or modify the actions in an effort to curb the spread of flu.

"We have not instituted anything yet," Jim Accurso, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said. "If we do, it would be up to the discretion of individual parishes whether or not to adopt them."

The last time revisions were made to mass due to flu concerns was in 2009, when the rapid spread of the H1N1 strain prompted many of the nations priests, including many in Minnesota, to suspend wine distribution and encourage members of the congregation to verbally give the sign of peace to one another.

Not too late for a flu shot:

  • Coborn's
  • Walgreens
  • Wayzata Children's Clinic
  • Ridgeview Excelsior Clinic

Because so many of the serious cases are occurring in long-term care residents, Ehlinger stressed that it’s very important for long-term care facilities to make sure that all their staff are vaccinated against influenza to help prevent the spread of flu to vulnerable residents. Also, MDH is advising facilities to follow guidelines designed to limit transmission of the virus, such as restricting visitors, particularly anyone who is ill. 

Ehlinger said those areas hardest hit with flu are implementing portions of plans developed for pandemic influenza. Hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities within each region are coordiating the use of resources such as beds, supplies and medicines.

All but a handful of U.S. states have reported a dramatic increase in flu-related illnesses.  

Schools in Orono, Wayzata and Westonka have seen increased rates of absenteeism, and are reminding students to cover their cough, wash their hands and stay home if they're sick.

Absences at Minnetonka Schools are consistent with past years, according to Janet Swiecichowski, director of district communications.

The district is monitoring a couple of confirmed cases of students absent with the flu in a couple schools, she said.

The guidelines?

"We encourage parents to keep students home if running a fever. Stay home 24 hours after fever breaks. Fever-free without medication for 24 hours before returning to school." A flu prevention reminder will go out from the district to parents Friday.

Hopkins Public Schools have also seen no increase in absences from flu.

Tony Taschner, the spokesman for District 196, said that as of Friday, two schools—Black Hawk Middle School in Eagan and Diamond Path Elementary in Apple Valley—had reached the point where the Minnesota Department of Health requires notification. 

That happens when flu-like symptoms are reported in at least 5 percent of the student body, or by at least three students in any single class. Taschner said that to the best of his recollection, it's the first time any school in the district had reached that level since the swine flu scare of 2009-10.

At this time last year, flu cases were lower in Minnesota than they are now, according to data on Google's Flu Trends. (Minnetonka-specific data is not available on Flu Trends, but flu cases in the Twin Cities metro are in line with the state as a whole.)

Overall in Minnesota, activity is categorized as "intense," while it was categorized as "low" at this time in 2011, according to Flu Trends.

Community members are advised to:

  1. Stay home when ill.
  2. Cover your cough
  3. Clean your hands after coughing or sneezing.
  4. Treat symptoms with over the counter medications.
  5. Seek prescribed medication treatment such as antiviral (Tamiflu) only ig you'tr sn individual at high risk of complications (older than 65, younger than 2, or with chronic diseases).

All healthy visitors are reminded to:

  1. Clean your hands after arriving and before departing;
  2. Use a tissue or your sleeve when you cough or sneeze;
  3. Clean your hands after coughing or sneezing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the following information:

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