Up to 37 Minnesotans may be afflicted with a severe lung disease connected with the use of e-cigarettes or vaping.

As of Sept. 10, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) was alerted to 25 confirmed or probable cases of the pneumonia-like illness, and another 12 suspected cases were under review.

Wendy Gullicksrud, infection prevention coordinator with CHI St. Joseph’s Health in Park Rapids, said, “Patients presented for care with symptoms indicative of pneumonia, including fever, but symptoms did not resolve after broad spectrum antibiotic treatment.”

A Sept. 11 release from the MDH described symptoms lasting from days to weeks, including shortness of breath, fever, cough, vomiting and diarrhea,” with some patients also reporting headache, dizziness and chest pain.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 450 patients were identified nationwide, and the administration of President Donald Trump announced on Sept. 11 that flavored e-cigarettes will be banned.

As of last week, six people had died of the illness. Among them was a Minnesota patient, “who was over 65 years old and died in August after a long and complicated hospitalization,” according to the MDH.

The state agency advised people having lung symptoms to seek clinical care and avoid e-cigarettes or other vaping products.

While the CDC and state health departments continue to study the precise link between vaping and the outbreak, they noted that the patients used vaping products – battery-powered devices that allow users to inhale aerosolized liquid – containing nicotine and/or marijuana-based ingredients.

Other potential risk factors include inhaling ultrafine particles, oil and metals, such as nickel, tin and lead, according to the MDH.

A 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found that 20 percent of high school students use e-cigarettes and 40 percent have tried them, the MDH reported. Of students who use e-cigarettes, the survey found that 34.7 percent of those in high school and 15.8 percent of those in middle school vaped at least once with a marijuana based product.

Despite the age of Minnesota’s single vaping-related to date, Mike Schommer with the MDH said that, among the reported cases statewide, “there’s a median age in the 20s,” but that other geographic or demographic information is not currently available.

Local action

Park Rapids Area High School has a group called We Decide, led by coordinator of educational services Shelli Walsh. Principal Jeff Johnson described it as “about making good choices with all substances.”

Walsh said that We Decide works to educate students and parents about the dangers of vaping.

“We have information presented in health classes, posters in the bathrooms, and events planned,” she said, “such as Open the Door presentation on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at the PRAHS media center, starting at 5:30 p.m., for adults only. We will also continue our work with Hubbard in Prevention to promote healthy choices and healthy lifestyles for our youth in Hubbard County.”

Angie Graham, grant coordinator for the Hubbard in Prevention Coalition (HIP), acknowledged that “there’s a lot of conversation” going on in the area about vaping and e-cigarettes.

“I do feel that this is an important topic that we need, as a community, to work together to educate our youth about,” she said. “Knowledge is powerful.”

On Sept. 12, Essentia Health announced an anti-vaping campaign called “Don’t Blow It,” in partnership with the American Lung Association and other community partners. The campaign features an online toolkit at www.essentiahealth.org/dontblowitguide and a 10-minute video.

“We felt, at Essentia Health and with our community partners, that there was more we could do to educate our youth about the health risks associated with vaping,” said Jill Doberstein, Tobacco Treatment Program Supervisor at Essentia Health. “But we also knew that to reach kids, their peers were going to be the best messengers. So we partnered with students at area schools to share their experience and their raw personal stories. The video is so powerful, it will send goosebumps up your spine.”

Essentia cited a survey showing that 1.5 million more students used e-cigarettes in 2018 than in 2017, with a 78 percent increase among high school students and a 48 percent increase among middle schoolers.

“Overall, e-cigarette use also has led to a surge in tobacco use,” the release said.