Health professionals recommend flu precautions; 27 Minnesotans had died of influenza-related illnesses by Jan. 10

By Seth Rowe - Sun Sailor Newspapers

Health officials are recommending flu shots and precautions for all Minnesotans following an influenza outbreak that by Jan. 10 had been linked to the deaths of 27 people, including St. Louis Park High School freshman Carly Christenson.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,121 flu hospitalizations this season by Jan. 10 in Minnesota – 401 of which were reported in the week leading up to the report.

Claudia Miller, who works with vaccine-preventable diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the numbers are rapidly changing. Outbreaks reported in long-term care facilities recently are the highest in “at least more than a decade,” Miller said.

Outbreaks of influenza-like illness had been reported in 59 skilled nursing facilities Minnesota this season by the Jan. 10 report, 28 of which were reported in the week leading up to the report. Minnesota schools reported 138 outbreaks during the season by the time of the report.

Miller said schools should keep ill students at home for five to seven days.

“They really should be excluded until they are completely well, in part because the student can’t really participate in school until they are well and to prevent influenza from spreading,” she said. “Generally, they’re going to be really sick and in bed for a number of days and still infectious days after.”

The department does not ever recommend a school close to prevent the spread of influenza since children tend to congregate elsewhere, Miller said. However, sometimes schools do close if so many teachers or other staff become ill that education becomes impossible.

Buddy Ferguson, a risk communication specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health, also recommended older victims stay home if they suspect they have the flu.

“Out of deference to your coworkers, stay home if you are ill,” said Ferguson, who was following his own advice by working from home when contacted. “Do not indulge in what some people are calling presenteeism, being the stormtrooper who shows up for work even if ill. Stay home if you have respiratory problems.”

Miller and Ferguson also suggested individuals with the flu should cough into a tissue if available and then dispose of the tissue promptly. If a tissue is not available, they should cough into a sleeve instead of their hands to prevent the virus from being spread on surfaces they touch. Flu victims should also wash their hands frequently, especially before they go to lunch.

Flu vaccinations can help prevent influenza in many cases, the health professionals said. Still, they recommended the shots.

“Flu shots are not 100 percent effective,” Ferguson said. “In fact, we and a lot of other people would like more work done on a more effective vaccine. But it does provide some protection, so by all means get a flu shot.”

Miller said the department does not routinely advise flu victims to visit a doctor unless they feel they cannot manage the symptoms at home or if they have underlying health problems that make them particularly vulnerable.

“If you just have the flu and it can be managed at home, there probably isn’t much benefit in going to the doctor,” she said.

However, she added the department did not want to necessarily discourage people from visiting a doctor, either. Antiviral agents can be used in “really high-risk situations,” Miller said. The antiviral agents do not cure the flu but can minimize the illness.

Antiviral drugs are different from antibiotics, which fight against bacterial infections.

The department states that high-risk groups for influenza are people age 65 and older, young children, pregnant women, people with health conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease and African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Contact Seth Rowe at seth.rowe@ecm-inc.com.

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