Health officials urge flu shots as illness becomes widespread

Influenza activity is increasing across Minnesota. And Park Rapids is not immune. "We have seen influenza," reports Wendy Gullicksrud, infection prevention and employee health coordinator at CHI St. Joseph's Health. Within the past month, the hos...

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Influenza activity is increasing across Minnesota.

And Park Rapids is not immune.

"We have seen influenza," reports Wendy Gullicksrud, infection prevention and employee health coordinator at CHI St. Joseph's Health.

Within the past month, the hospital treated 21 patients who laboratory-tested positive for influenza. Three cases were so severe the patients required hospitalization, Gullicksrud said.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) elevated the state's flu and respiratory illness activity from "regional" to "widespread." MDH monitors and releases weekly flu statistics, with the most recent report ending Jan. 21.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also report widespread influenza activity in 37 states and Puerto Rico. Eight influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported nationwide for the 2016-17 season, thus far. None were in Minnesota.

Influenza viruses come in many strains. The three most common are influenza A (H1N1 or H3N2) and influenza B viruses.

According to the MDH, the main flu strain circulating this season is influenza A (H3N2). Adults 65 and older are usually affected more in seasons where H3N2 is the dominant strain, say MDH officials.

All Park Rapids cases tested positive for influenza A, said Gullicksrud.

"But there's a lot of respiratory illness going around testing negative for influenza," she added. "Lots of pneumonia and upper respiratory illnesses."

All flu-related laboratory tests done at CHI St. Joseph's Health are submitted to the MDH, which repeats testing. All negative cases were indeed confirmed "negative" by MDH, Gullicksrud said.

There is no visitor ban at CHI St. Joseph's Health.

"I don't think our activity is high enough yet," said Gullicksrud, however, visitors who have a cough will be asked to wear a mask.


Not the stomach flu

Influenza is often confused with gastroenteritis, or what's commonly called the "stomach flu." They are not related. A different set of viruses cause stomach upset or diarrhea.

Influenza is a contagious, respiratory disease caused by a virus that attacks the nose, throat and lungs.

MDH officials say flu can be a serious, life-threatening illness, even for otherwise healthy people. CDC data show that about half of children hospitalized with flu over the last several years did not have underlying medical conditions.

Certain people are at greater risk for severe illness from the flu. Adults over 65, children under 5, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems or chronic medical conditions are at high risk for complications.

Influenza symptoms - which tend to come on suddenly - include fever/chills, dry cough, sore throat, headache, extreme tiredness and body aches.

Most common in winter

According to the CDC, flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when infected people cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby.


"It's most commonly spread through droplets within a three- to six-foot area," Gullicksrud said.

Flu outbreaks are more prevalent during the fall and winter. Infected droplets are suspended in dry air longer, she explained.

"And also the fact that we stay indoors more. We're more confined."

Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.

The exact timing and duration of flu season can vary, says the CDC, but influenza activity often begins to increase in October. During the past 34-year period, the CDC found that flu activity most often peaked in February, followed by December, March and January.

This year appears to be a more active flu season compared to last year, Gullicksrud noted.

"January and February are kind of our big months for influenza," she said.

During the 2015-16 flu season, there were 1,516 hospitalizations in Minnesota, 203 outbreaks of influenza-like illness in schools and three pediatric deaths. That season was dominated by the influenza A (H1N1) virus.


Not too late to vaccinate

The CDC and MDH recommend that everyone 6 months of age and older get the flu vaccine every year.

Kris Ehresmann, director of MDH's Infectious Disease Division, notes that this year's flu vaccine appears to be a good match for the circulating viruses.

"The more people who are vaccinated, the more protection we'll have in the community to slow or stop the spread, especially to those at high risk for complications from flu," she said.

The level of protection provided by flu vaccine varies among populations and between individuals, according to MDH. Recent studies show vaccine reduces the risk of flu by about 50 to 60 percent among the overall population when the vaccine is a close match.

"We know people may be disappointed that they have to get a shot, but the shot is the recommended option this year," said Ehresmann. "The small poke is far better than being sick with flu and missing days or weeks of schools, work or other activities."

It's not too late to get the flu shot, Gullisckrud said, but it does take two weeks for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the illness.

National flu vaccination rates released back in November by the CDC revealed that only 40 percent of people ages 6 months and older had received their flu vaccine.


Flu vaccines are covered by most insurance plans as a requirement of the Affordable Care Act.

Flu fighter checklist

The MDH advises the following:

• Cover your mouth when you cough.

• Wash your hands frequently.

• Stay home if you are sick. Avoid contact with others.

• Rest and drink lots of fluids.

• If you are in a high-risk group, call your healthcare provider for advice.


• Go to the doctor or the emergency room if you have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; sudden dizziness; confusion; severe or persistent vomiting or flu-like symptoms that improve, but return with worse fever and cough.

More information is available at

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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