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Flu hits quickly across region

It's not too late to get a flu shot for this year's season, health experts say. (File / News Tribune)

Influenza hospitalizations climbed sharply for a third straight week in Minnesota, the state Department of Health reported Thursday. Two more people died with flu-related illnesses in the week that ended Dec. 29, bringing the total to four for the young flu season.

The Health Department reported that 226 people were hospitalized last week in Minnesota with laboratory-confirmed influenza, compared with 123 people the week before. A total of 578 people have been hospitalized with the disease in Minnesota since the flu season began.

The flu influx has been noticed in the Northland in the past couple of weeks.

"It's really been climbing this week," said Dr. Linda Van Etta, infectious disease specialist at St. Luke's hospital.

At Essentia Health St. Mary's Medical Center, emergency room visits by patients with flu-like symptoms have increased recently, Essentia spokeswoman Kim Kaiser said, and some patients have been hospitalized. The Essentia lab saw influenza tests increase on Dec. 15, and the numbers have gone up each week since, she said.

Emergency room doctors at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet have been seeing about 10 patients a day with flu or flu-like symptoms in the past couple of weeks, said Nancy Taggert, hospital spokeswoman. "Usually they don't see any, the doctor tells me," Taggert said.

In a typical day, the Community Memorial emergency room sees 30 to 50 patients overall, Taggert said.

None of the Community Memorial patients have been admitted to the hospital so far, Taggert said.

St. Luke's has admitted about a half-dozen patients with the flu, Van Etta said, and the hospital on Thursday took the unusual step of designating one floor for influenza patients. The last time St. Luke's did that was during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, she said.

However, most patients can be treated in the emergency room and return home, Van Etta said.

People likely to be admitted are the youngest and oldest patients and those who have underlying illnesses, said Julie Pearce, a nurse practitioner in the Essentia Health St. Mary's Medical Center emergency room.

Flu symptoms come on quickly, she said.

"It does hit you quite acutely," Van Etta agreed. "You start to have chills and headache and fever and a little runny nose, and then some burning in your chest and a cough. And then your muscles and joints start to ache. You feel like you've been run over by a Mack truck."

If symptoms have been present for less than 48 hours, patients can be treated with Tamiflu, Pearce said. If they've already been sick for 48 hours or more, it's ineffective. But even when it can be used, it's no miracle cure. "Tamiflu only cuts the length ... of the illness by half a day," she said. "Its efficacy is sort of debatable."

This year's vaccine is a "wonderful match" for the strains of influenza people are experiencing, Van Etta said. It's not foolproof, which is why some people who have gotten the shot still might come down with flu. But symptoms will be milder than they would have been without the shot, she said.

Both Van Etta and Pearce are still urging that people who haven't been vaccinated get a flu shot.

If it's too late for that?

"If you're ill, stay home," Van Etta said. "Use good cough etiquette, and wash your hands."