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Flu outbreak wanes but health officials say it’s ‘not over yet’

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WILLMAR — Influenza activity continues to fall from the peak levels seen last month, but health officials say it’s too soon to breathe a sigh of relief.

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“It’s not behind us yet,” Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Willmar’s Affiliated Community Medical Centers, said this week.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported nine deaths from influenza during the week of Feb. 3 to 9. Seventy-two people were hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza last week, the Health Department said Thursday.

This brings the number of Minnesota’s confirmed influenza-related deaths to 136 since the flu season began. Statewide, 2,703 people have been hospitalized with flu this season.

Twenty-two schools, including one in Kandiyohi County, reported outbreaks of influenza-like illness last week. Outbreaks are reported whenever the number of students absent with influenza-like illness is higher than 5 percent of total enrollment, or when three or more students in the same elementary classroom are absent with influenza-like illness.

A Kandiyohi County nursing home was one of three long-term care facilities in Minnesota that reported a flu outbreak last week.

Overall numbers of flu cases have dropped since mid-January, said DeBruycker. “It’s much better.”

But flu season isn’t over yet, and Affiliated Community Medical Centers’ flu surveillance program is beginning to show an upswing in type B influenza, she said.

Most of the cases seen earlier this season were type A, which tends to be more severe and is more apt to hit older adults. Type B is milder and more likely to affect children, teens and young adults.

Of 210 flu tests administered at ACMC last week for suspected flu, 17 were positive for type A and 34 positive for type B, DeBruycker said. The week before, 229 flu tests were given, with 22 positive for type A and 22 positive for type B.

“We’re seeing that shift,” DeBruycker said.

Type A influenza usually peaks earlier in the winter, while type B tends to peak later in the season.

This year’s version of the influenza vaccine protects against two type A flu viruses but only one type B virus.

Health officials also are seeing an increase in respiratory syncytial virus, which hits hardest among infants and very young children and can lead to hospitalization.

ACMC administered 45 tests last week for suspected RSV; 17 confirmed the presence of the virus, DeBruycker said.

A similar trend is occurring across the Minnesota Lab System laboratory influenza surveillance program, a network of 310 hospital- and clinic-based laboratories that do rapid testing for influenza and RSV.

It’s a reminder to stay diligent about reducing the spread of germs, DeBruycker said. “Still wash your hands. Still stay home if you’re running a fever. Flu vaccination is still an option. We don’t have a lot of vaccine left but we still have a little bit.”

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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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