A spike in reported flu outbreaks in Minnesota schools flattened out in the final week of September at 125, a sign the drumbeat of reminders to wash hands and cover coughs might be slowing the spread of swine flu in the state.
"We had seen that double in previous weeks and now we're seeing more of a leveling off. It does suggest what we're sort of dampening that increase," said Kristen Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease, Epidemiology and Control Division for the state Health Department.
The department reported Wednesday that 125 schools reported flu outbreaks from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3, down slightly from the 134 schools that reported outbreaks the week before and 62 outbreaks the week before that.
"I think that school administrators and school nurses have done a phenomenal job of educating parents and doing triage at schools to make sure those students are isolated and sent home right away," she said.
The metro area again had the most reported school outbreaks, with 19 in Ramsey County, 14 in Hennepin County and 13 in Dakota County. However, the outbreaks continue in the state's outstate population centers, including Stearns, Blue Earth and Olmsted counties.
The Health Department defines a school outbreak as when 5 percent or more of the students are out with a flu-like illness, or three children in an elementary classroom are out.
Minnesota schools typically see very few flu cases this time of year. Although the seasonal flu season officially starts in October, absences due to the seasonal flu usually spike from late January to early February.
Despite the slight downtick in school outbreaks in the new weekly report, the flu continues to spread in the state. The state reports 336 people have now been hospitalized with confirmed cases of swine flu - 16 during the last week of September and 76 of them since Sept. 1.
Children continue to be the most vulnerable. Of those hospitalized with swine flu, more than 40 percent were between 5 and 18 years old, and nearly a 140 were age 9 or younger.
The most recent death from the swine flu was an otherwise healthy 6-year-old boy. Three of the state's seven swine flu deaths have been children under 9.
Despite the deaths and illnesses, Ehresmann said there is no evidence that the virus has gotten more virulent and most people recover without medical care. She noted that healthy children die even during normal flu seasons.
"It's a terrible sad event and we don't want to see this things happen," she said.
Which is why she encouraged parents to vaccinate their children both for the seasonal flu and the swine flu, what scientists call the 2009 H1N1 strain.
While the first doses of the swine flu vaccine have arrived in the state, they are earmarked for health care workers. It's expected to become more widely available in the coming weeks.
Until then, Minnesotans are asked to keep covering their coughs, washing their hands and staying home from school or work until 24 hours after their fever subsides without the use of fever-reducing medicines.
The department also recommends that residents get the seasonal flu shot, which is available in the state although some clinics have had trouble getting enough vaccine to meet early and heavy demand. ---
On the Net: Minnesota Department of Health, flu site: www.mdhflu.com
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)