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Flu hitting nursing facilities; Record number of outbreaks reported

Graph courtesy of Duluth News Tribune.

DULUTH, Minn.—The flu bug has bitten Minnesota's nursing care residents particularly hard this winter, a state health official said.

"We've seen a record number of outbreaks," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology, prevention and control for the Minnesota Department of Health, in an interview on Thursday, Jan. 18. "Our long-term care facility outbreaks are way up."

The health department's weekly influenza report, released on Thursday, says 91 flu outbreaks at long-term care facilities have been reported in Minnesota so far this flu season. That includes 36 in the past week and 23 the week before that.

The data show up as a spike in a graphic accompanying the health department's report. The 36 outbreaks reported in the past week are more than in any week in flu seasons dating back to at least 2013-14.

One outbreak occurred at The Fountains, a short-term rehabilitation facility that's part of Ecumen Lakeshore on the 4000 block of London Road in Duluth, spokeswoman Jena Evans said.

Evans declined to say how many patients have been affected, but she said all 60 have been treated preventively with Tamiflu, a prescription flu medication.

No one at The Fountains has died this flu season because of influenza, Evans said.

But at least one flu-related death has occurred at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth, said Dr. Andrew Thompson, an infectious disease specialist there. St. Luke's has experienced an influx of flu cases during the past two weeks, Thompson said.

"We are kind of breaking at the seams right now," he said. "Our hospital census is at a very high level — I'm not sure if it's a record, but it is pretty much at capacity. And a significant factor is flu."

Overall, the Twin Ports area has had 72 hospitalizations for influenza to date, said Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, an infectious disease specialist for Essentia Health in Duluth.

"We're seeing what the rest of the nation is seeing, that influenza hospitalizations started much earlier this year compared with previous years," he said.

Prabhu said he wasn't aware of any flu-related deaths at Essentia facilities in the Twin Ports.

Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet, Minn., has had five patients hospitalized for flu since mid-December, said Shelly Demers, director of staff education and infection prevention for the hospital. Of 125 patients tested since Dec. 1, 24 percent were positive for influenza, she said.

No flu deaths have been recorded so far at Community Memorial, she said.

The state doesn't keep track of adult influenza deaths, Ehresmann said. One pediatric death related to flu has been reported so far this season in Minnesota, she said.

The state doesn't release any information about pediatric flu victims, but KMSP-TV in Minneapolis reported the victim was a 2-year-old girl from Cottage Grove, Minn.

Media reports on this season's widespread flu outbreak seem to be having an effect. "I actually gave two employees flu shots this morning because they finally got nervous enough that they came knocking at my door," Demers said.

All of the health experts interviewed for this story said it's not too late to get a flu shot.

"First of all, the activity really isn't slowing down," Ehresmann said. And lab specimens are starting to show flu strains that weren't part of the original outbreak, she added.

The primary strain to date has been Type A-H3N2, she said. That's the strain for which the current vaccine was reported to have been only 10 percent effective during Australia's flu season.

But it's incorrect to apply that rate of effectiveness to the flu season in the U.S., infectious disease experts say.

"It's a different continent, they have a different population, and we recommend universal vaccination, whereas that's not the case in Australia," Thompson said.

Experts are predicting the vaccine will prove to be around 30 percent effective for H3N2 in the U.S., he said. "But you really can make better sense of it at the end of the season when we can actually do some numbers."

Most of the officials interviewed for this story said their facilities are taking precautions that are normal for flu season. Because of the outbreak at The Fountains, patients there are being kept in their rooms and are having therapy sessions in their rooms, Evans said. Caregivers are wearing masks when they work with patients in that facility.

Neither Chris Jensen Health and Rehabilitation Center nor the Benedictine Living Community, both of Duluth, have had flu on their campuses so far, representatives said.

"Hand-washing, hand-sanitizing — that's our best defense," said Amy Porter, executive director at Chris Jensen. "If staff are ill, we don't let them come back until they are without a fever for 24 hours."