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Flu activity continues to be high across Minnesota

WILLMAR — As the influenza outbreak continues, masks and hand sanitizer are becoming a familiar sight at the entrance to local health facilities.

Providers are busy not only caring for sick patients but taking steps as well to attempt to curb the spread of the flu virus in what’s proving to be a severe influenza season.

Influenza activity remains high, health officials said Wednesday.

“You keep hoping it’s going to level off but it’s not,” said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

The fifth flu-related death in Minnesota, a 14-year-old from St. Louis Park, was confirmed this week.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported at a news conference in Mankato on Wednesday that more than 900 Minnesotans have been hospitalized with influenza since the season began in October.

At ACMC, magazines have been removed from the urgent care and pediatrics waiting rooms to reduce the possibility of spreading the flu virus, DeBruycker said.

Clinic officials are starting to discuss the possibility of setting up a separate area in the laboratory for testing patients who come in with flu-like illness, she said. “We’re just getting that under way.”

Rice Memorial Hospital has not adopted visitor restrictions yet but wants visitors to consider whether their visit is necessary.

“We have asked that people consider visiting another time,” said Wendy Ulferts, chief nursing officer.

Visitors who need to be in the hospital are urged to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. They should also put on a mask if they are experiencing any flu-like symptoms such as aches, fever, a cough or scratchy throat.

Hospital officials are continuing to monitor influenza activity, Ulferts said. “We haven’t been hit quite as hard as some other areas but we’re watching it closely. … We are still seeing quite a few people coming to our ER with flu-like symptoms.”

The numbers have been more stable in the past couple of days, she said. In the meantime, the emergency room staff is taking a somewhat cautious approach to influenza testing so that test supplies do not become depleted too rapidly, she said. “We might not always test everyone.”

One of the messages from health officials: Stay home from work or school if you have a fever or other flu-like symptoms.

“If you’re feeling under the weather, think about what activities you have planned and think about scaling those back,” DeBruycker said.

That was echoed by the American College of Emergency Physicians, which issued strongly worded advice Wednesday for people to stay home and rest if they are ill. Trying to carry on with their usual activities can increase the spread of the flu virus and put other people at risk, and also can make the sick person more vulnerable to something worse such as pneumonia, the physicians group said.

Frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces such as countertops and door knobs is recommended as well.

Although it’s not too late to get a flu shot, people should do so soon, health officials said. ACMC administered the vaccine to 50 people on Tuesday alone, DeBruycker noted. “There’s still vaccine available. If you haven’t done that, don’t delay.”

Anne Polta

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

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