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Flu activity becomes widespread in Willmar area

Erica Dischino / Tribune A member of the medical staff uses sanitation wipes Thursday to clean the hand sanitizer bottle that is available for patients to use in the lobby of Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar. With influenza becoming widespread across the region, health providers have taken preventative measures to prevent the spread.1 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Above the influenza prevention station in the lobby of Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar, there is a sign that provides tips for patients.2 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune An influenza prevention station is available for patients when they first walk into Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar. Local medical clinics saw an increase in influenza cases during the holiday season, and flu is now widespread in the region.3 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune Hand sanitizer is located at the influenza prevention station in the lobby of Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar. With influenza becoming widespread across the region, medical centers have taken preventative measure such as hand sanitizer and face masks to prevent the spread.4 / 5
Erica Dischino / Tribune A member of the medical staff uses sanitation wipes Thursday to clean the influenza prevention station located in the lobby of Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar. Flu has become widespread in the region, and local health providers have implemented measures to offer items such as hand sanitizer and face masks to prevent the spread.5 / 5

WILLMAR — Influenza has become widespread across the region, prompting health providers to urge the public to take preventive measures.

"We are seeing a ton of it," said Ali Lesteberg, infection control and immunization lead registered nurse at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

The number of cases statewide began to climb in late December and may rise further before peaking.

Flu is now considered widespread across Minnesota, the highest level of severity.

The Minnesota Department of Health said Thursday that 503 people were hospitalized last week for influenza-related illness. So far this season, there have been 1,765 hospitalizations and one pediatric flu death in Minnesota, according to the Health Department.

Four new outbreaks in schools and 23 outbreaks in long-term care facilities also were reported last week across the state.

Local medical clinics started seeing the increase during the holiday season. ACMC, which participates in the Minnesota Department of Health influenza surveillance program, experienced "a really big spike" in influenza-like illness right after the holidays, Lesteberg said.

The story has been similar at Family Practice Medical Center in Willmar.

"We started to see cases rolling in right before the Christmas break," said Stacey Zondervan, clinic manager. "This is a bit earlier than last year."

She and Lesteberg said most patients have been sick with the A strain of influenza, which tends to be more severe than the B strain.

Respiratory illnesses are accounting for a noticeable increase in patient visits to Willmar's Rice Memorial Hospital as well, according to Kathy Dillon, chief nursing officer.

The last couple of weeks have seen "pretty steady activity" in both the emergency room and inpatient units, she said.

Preliminary data for Kandiyohi County shows one school-based outbreak of influenza-like illness and 20 hospitalized cases, primarily among older adults, for the season so far, according to Kandiyohi County Public Health.

The current flu season is shaping up to be more severe than in years past. According to the state Department of Health, the predominant circulating strain of flu is H3N2, which is associated with more hospitalizations and deaths among young children and among adults 65 and older.

State health officials sought Thursday to head off reports suggesting this year's flu vaccine formula has limited effectiveness.

Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease with the Minnesota Department of Health, called the rumors "misleading."

"It is too early for us to know what the flu vaccine effectiveness is for the U.S., and we can't make predictions based on what happened in other countries like Australia because it's not an equal comparison," she said.

Even in a year when the vaccine is well-matched to circulating strains of influenza, it will not prevent every case of flu, Ehresmann said. But when large numbers of people are vaccinated, it can help limit the spread of the flu virus and reduce the likelihood of severe illness among those who get a flu shot and later get influenza, she said.

Local health providers are urging the public to get vaccinated if they haven't already done so. Vaccination is especially important for anyone who falls into a higher-risk group: older adults, infants and very young children, pregnant women and anyone with a chronic health condition such as diabetes or asthma.

"It's not too late to get your flu shot. We know that's one of the best ways to prevent and help lessen the effects of influenza," Lesteberg said.

"It is your best chance," Zondervan agreed.

Family Practice Medical Center has used up almost all its vaccine supply but has some pediatric doses available for children under the age of 3, she said.

ACMC still has an adequate amount of vaccine for established patients who haven't had their annual flu shot yet. The vaccine also is available at several local pharmacies.

Local health providers and Kandiyohi County Public Health are emphasizing preventive habits: frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, getting adequate rest, and staying home when ill.

"Really, the key is if you're sick, stay home," Zondervan said. "People hate to miss work. People hate to miss school. But if your body is telling you to rest, you should probably do that."

Masks have popped up at the entrances to area hospitals and clinics, and patients and visitors are being urged to put on a mask before seeing someone who may be vulnerable.

Symptoms of flu tend to come on suddenly. They can include a sore throat, coughing, fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue.

People at high risk for complications from flu should contact their health care provider right away if they have symptoms of flu. Antiviral medications can be prescribed to all hospitalized, severely ill and high-risk patients with confirmed or suspected flu, but the drugs work best when treatment is started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Anyone who develops severe illness with flu-like symptoms should also seek medical care.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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