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Flu leads to hospitalizations in Park Rapids

The widespread, nationwide flu outbreak is impacting the Park Rapids area, and precautions are being taken to prevent its spread.

According to Infection Prevention Specialist Wendy Gulliksrud at CHI St. Joseph's Health in Park Rapids, there have been 28 positive cases of influenza in the past month and eight of those (28.5 percent) have led to hospitalization. Most of the patients were first seen in the emergency room, with 10 of the 28 cases reported in just the past week.

Gulliksrud said she believes that the Essentia Clinic has seen about the same number of flu cases as the hospital in the past month.

The more serious "A" strain had led to eight hospitalizations at St. Joseph's.

Gulliksrud said that of the 28 flu cases seen at the hospital, 21 were the "A" strain and 8 were the "B" strain. Most of the patients were tested in the emergency room.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) website, the main flu strain circulating so far this season in Minnesota and the U.S. is influenza A H3N2. Flu seasons with H3N2 as the dominant strain have been associated with more hospitalizations and deaths in adults 65 years and older and young children compared to other age groups.

St. Joseph's has signs posted at the entrance and at elevators encouraging anyone with respiratory symptoms not to visit to prevent the spread of flu in the facility. There are also respiratory masks required for anyone who is coughing, along with a poster encouraging visitors to practice good flu hygiene.

Flu symptoms and treatment

The symptoms of flu, which tend to come on suddenly, can include a sore throat, coughing, fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. People who become severely ill with flu-like symptoms should seek medical care.

People at high risk for complications from flu should contact their health care provider right away if symptoms arise. Antiviral medications should be prescribed to all hospitalized, severely ill and high-risk patients with confirmed or suspected flu. These drugs work best when treatment begins within two days of symptoms, but may still be helpful after that time. Both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and MDH have notified medical providers of the importance of prescribing antivirals during this flu season.

Gulliksrud explained that when flu is suspected, the patient is usually started on an antiviral medicine, such as Tamiflu right away, and testing is done. If the test comes back negative, the antiviral medicine can be discontinued.

"It's most effective if the antiviral is started right away when symptoms begin," Gulliksrud said.

Along with vaccination, health officials remind Minnesotans to prevent the spread of flu and other illnesses by covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when feeling ill and washing hands often.

Caution urged at senior living facilities

At Green Pine Acres in Menahga, there has been one positive case of flu so far this season. Administrator Laua Ahlf said that the CDC poster listing the precautions all visitors should take outside the door to help prevent the spread of flu in their facility.

"We also have masks available at the door and encourage visitors to wash hands and use the hand sanitizer that's available," she said. "Obviously we hope no one will come to visit if they are sick. We are hearing reports it's much worse in other parts of the state."

At Heritage Living Center in Park Rapids, there are no specific restrictions in place but a sign at the door does request that people with flu-like symptoms or cough stay out of the facility until they are feeling better.

Flu widespread in state

With nearly 100 outbreaks in schools and nursing homes, the MDH reported that it could be a severe flu season.

The most recent report from the MDH said flu activity is continuing to increase across the state and has reached the highest reporting category of "widespread."

As of the week ending Jan. 6, there had been 1,765 flu-related hospitalizations, 55 outbreaks of influenza-like illness in long-term care facilities, 43 outbreaks in schools and one pediatric flu death so far in Minnesota.

There have been two years in the past five years where the number for the entire flu season was lower than the numbers so far this season. In the 2013-2014 season, there were only 1,540 and in the 2015-2015 season there were 1,541.However, they can climb much higher too, as in 2014-2015 when there were 4,138 hospitalizations.

It's not too late to get vaccinated

"Now is the time to get your flu vaccine, if you have not already," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the MDH. "Even otherwise-healthy people can become very sick from flu, and we still have a lot of flu season left. Flu can easily circulate through April and beyond."

Ehresmann said it is very important for young children, older adults and others at high risk for complications from flu to get vaccinated.

People at higher risk for flu complications include pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, asthma or heart disease.

Gulliksrud agreed that getting vaccinated now is a good idea, as it will protect from flu later in the season, especially the "B" strain of flu that is typically seen in our area more into February and March.

The MDH said that it's not true, despite rumors, that the vaccine isn't effective this year.

"Rumors that the flu vaccine is not effective this year are misleading," said Ehresmann. "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."

Ehresmann noted that even in a perfectly matched year, the vaccine will not prevent every case of flu. However, more people being vaccinated means more protection in the community, limiting the spread of the virus. Additionally, recently published studies found that people vaccinated against the flu are less likely to have serious complications that could put them in the hospital.