It was at the press conference about the Minneapolis firefighter who died from the flu that the State Health Department made the announcement about the latest child death from the disease. An 8-year-old from the Duluth area died on Monday.
That brings to four the number of children in Minnesota who've died from the influenza virus this season. The first three had not been vaccinated. Kris Ehresmann, the immunization program manager at the State Health Department, says the fourth child was a different case.
"The 8-year-old actually did have underlying health conditions and had been vaccinated, as was appropriate," said Ehresmann.
Officials say they don't know of any underlying health conditions in the case of the firefighter, but he had not received a flu shot. Minneapolis fire officials say Barry DeLude, 44, had been out sick since Jan. 31. He was hospitalized on Sunday after he had trouble breathing, and died Tuesday morning.
Health officials say it's unusual for children and young, healthy adults to die from the flu, but it does happen. Ehresmann says influenza is a serious disease, but despite the recent deaths, the data for this season isn't much different from past years.
"Because we've had more mild flu seasons, I think we forget about that. So seeing these deaths is very significant," says Ehresmann. "We're taking it seriously and we're continuing to look into it. But all the data we have at this point suggests that it's a strain we would have expected to be circulating this year."
“This clearly is an unusual number [of child deaths] this year here in Minnesota, relative to past years' reporting. But it shouldn't be considered unexpected.”Mike Osterholm, infectious disease expert
It's the H-1 strain -- the strain of flu that the vaccine was meant to ward off. About 36,000 people die from the flu nationwide every year. About 100 of those people are children. Last week's news about the second and third children dying caused a scramble for vaccines.
"Deaths in children across the country occur every year. And some years, more occur in some states than others," says Mike Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "This clearly is an unusual number this year here in Minnesota, relative to past years' reporting. But it shouldn't be considered unexpected."
Health officials say this year's flu season got off to a slow start, but now more than 200 outbreaks have been reported in Minnesota schools alone. Osterholm says that's not all -- many more flu cases and deaths have yet to be counted.
Health officials track pediatric deaths as they occur. But they won't know the overall fatality rate until the flu season is over.
"I think that if we really could do the count in the community right now of who's dying from influenza, it's much more than the number that we're reporting with the young children and the one Minneapolis firefighter," Osterholm says. "Particularly with the elderly, or even those who may be immune-compromised, we see influenza deaths there all the time. They just never make news."
Health officials say the disease hasn't peaked yet. But as soon as the next three to four weeks, Olsterholm expects the presence the flu to be greatly diminished. Still, he's recommending flu shots for those who have not yet received one. And health officials say there is plenty of the vaccine still available.