FAIRMONT - Flu season is certainly upon us here in south-central Minnesota, and for reasons unknown to the experts, the region has been hit particularly hard.
A panel of experts gathered Wednesday at South Central College in North Mankato to spread the word on the flu and to share ways that schools, parents, employers and the general public can help keep the virus contained.
More than 100 people in the region have been hospitalized from Sept. 1 to Jan. 5 because of the flu, according to preliminary totals released Tuesday by Brad Krier, field epidemiologist with the state Department of Health. That's about 33.3 hospitalized cases per 100,000 in the south-central region - the highest in the state. The ratio for other regions around the state varies from 1.9 cases to 22 cases per 100,000. The official numbers will be released today.
"We are seeing the rest of Minnesota catch up," Krier said.
He could not say why south-central Minnesota has initially been hit harder, since the vaccination rates are the same across the board.
The most prevalent strain seen this year has been H3M2, which is included in the flu vaccinations, but it tends to be more severe, particularly on the elderly.
"This is just a seasonal strain, not a pandemic," Krier said.
And the flu season has yet to hit its peak. Traditionally, January through late February is when we'll see the worst of it.
In order to prevent the spread of influenza and other illnesses and better protect patients and staff, Mayo Clinic Health System has implemented visitor restrictions at its hospitals in Fairmont, Mankato, New Prague, Springfield, St. James and Waseca. Visitors are limited to immediate families members and only two visitors per patient at a time. No one who is ill will be permitted to visit.
Dr. Greg Kutcher, president and CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System, said patient volume has been up at the clinics, emergency rooms and urgent care units. Adding to the challenge of handling the additional traffic is a staff shortage, since providers have also been getting sick.
"We've literally doubled our numbers in the past month," said Dr. Ruth Bolton, an Urgent Care physician in the Mayo Clinic Health System.
Dr. Julie Gerndt, medical director at Mankato Clinic, said her site has seen hundreds more patients for the flu than this time last year. In conjunction, she also has noticed an increasing willingness from patients to accept vaccines.
Creating a flu vaccine is a bit of a highly educated guessing game, anticipating what flu strains will be most prevalent and creating vaccines for those strains. The vaccine for this year is pretty accurate at a 91 percent match, according to Krier.
"No vaccine is 100 percent effective," he said, estimating a vaccine, if it's matched up against the correct strain, is about 60 percent effective in healthy adults. "... But that's a 60 percent chance of protection versus zero percent chance."
When people are sick with flu-like symptoms - the most telltale signs being fever and a cough - officials recommend people stay home, and seek medical treatment if they have a persistent high fever or shortness of breath. Medical centers are trying to make more staff available to answer calls and talk to patients about when they should see a provider.
"Not everyone with symptoms should come in," Kutcher said, since those sick people are putting healthy individuals at risk by exposing them to the flu virus.
Antiviral medication is available to help minimize flu symptoms if administered starting within the first 48 hours of contracting the flu, but it's not for everyone, Kutcher said. Health providers prefer to give this out to young children, people older than 65, and those patients battling other medical issues.
Cheri Lewer, director of Waseca County Public Health, gave the following advice for people trying to avoid getting sick and for those who already are:
o Get vaccinated.
o Cover your cough.
o Wash your hands well and wash them often.
o Stay home if you're sick, advised.
"We in public health are asking you all to do your part in stopping the spread of influenza," Lewer said.
Putting out a similar appeal to the regional business community was Barb Embacher, vice president of Greater Mankato Growth.
"Encourage your employees to stay home if they're ill," she said. "And maybe lighten up."
For examples, she suggested temporarily nixing policies requiring an employee get a note from a medical provider, since that sick employee then has to go to the doctor, potentially spread their illness, and further burden an already overwhelmed system, Embacher said.
She also suggested employers be flexible about telecommuting, promote good personal hygiene by providing hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to wipe down surfaces.
"And encourage your employees to get the flu shot," she said.