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West central Minnesota flu cases on rise

Hand antiseptic and face masks are available in the entrance of Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar for visitors to help decrease the spread of germs. Health officials are predicting this year’s flu season could be severe. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Influenza cases have surged this past week in what is shaping up to be a severe flu season. Several patients were sick enough to be hospitalized, said Wendy Ulferts, chief nursing officer at Rice Memorial Hospital.

“It’s keeping us very busy,” she said Wednesday.

Flu is hitting harder and earlier than health providers have seen the last couple of years.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported the state’s first confirmed flu case in October. Since then, nearly 300 people across the state have been hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza. Two deaths have been reported.

The most recent statistics from the state Health Department were issued shortly before Christmas, however, and don’t reflect a surge that occurred in just the past week.

The upturn was so sudden and so sharp that it caught everyone somewhat by surprise, Ulferts said. “We’ve seen so many years with light activity.”

Since the flu season began in October, Rice Hospital has administered 148 flu tests to patients, she said. Thirty have come back positive so far — all of them after Dec. 21, she said.

At Affiliated Community Medical Centers, urgent care centers have been extremely busy for the past week, said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center.

“It just kind of took off,” she said. “We’re seeing it at all our sites. … We’ve seen double the number of positive cases from the week before. We know it’s really here.”

Urgent care waits during some of the busiest times at the Willmar clinic have been upwards of an hour.

Most of the confirmed cases, both statewide and regionally, are type A influenza, which is generally more severe than type B. They are occurring in all ages, from infants to the elderly.

The heightened flu activity has put a strain on some of the region’s small community hospitals. Several have no more beds available and have begun diverting patients to Rice, Ulferts said.

“A lot of patients are coming to us,” she said. “We’ve been lucky here. We’ve been able to accommodate that.”

There also has been some flu among hospital staff but staffing levels, which were ramped up this past week to handle the increase in patients, remain adequate, she said. “We’ve been able to have enough nurses to care for our patients.”

Health officials say they’re braced for the outbreak to continue. In a typical year, flu activity doesn’t peak until late January or early February.

Although some of the people who are getting sick have received a flu shot, most of the cases tracked by ACMC’s surveillance program through the Minnesota Department of Health have been among those who weren’t vaccinated, DeBruycker said.

The vaccine doesn’t offer 100 percent protection but can help make a bout with influenza less severe, she said. “Vaccine is still the best thing that you can do.”

Aside from getting a flu shot, local health officials advise people to cover their cough, wash their hands frequently and to stay home if they have flu-like symptoms.

Local health facilities also have made masks and hand sanitizers available to help reduce the spread of the influenza virus, especially to those who might be more vulnerable.

“We’re asking people to grab a mask” if they think they’re coming down with the flu, DeBruycker said. “You never know who else is in the waiting room besides you.”

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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