Minnesota's H1N1 vaccination campaign reached a pivotal point today Tuesday when health officials substantially expanded the group of people eligible for vaccine.
While the immunization program is gaining speed, the state's flu outbreak is waning.
Flu cases have dropped in more than half of the state's 8 geographic regions, so the outbreak is no longer considered widespread in Minnesota.
That development prompted state epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield to officially declare that this wave of flu is on its way out.
"I am willing to say that we have peaked in the fall wave and we are coming down," Lynfield said. "I anticipate that we may well have another several weeks of activity."
Lynfield said H1N1 flu peaked in Minnesota about a month ago and has fallen steadily since then. During the past week, clinics and hospitals reported fewer cases of influenza-like illness to the Health Department, and only 10 new schools had flu outbreaks. That's essentially unchanged from the previous week when nine schools reported outbreaks.
There were seven new flu-related deaths confirmed in the past week. That brings the total number of flu fatalities in the state to 35 since the H1N1 outbreak began in April. Two of the victims were adolescents; the others were adults under age 65. The Health Department said 6 of the 7 deaths were confirmed cases of H1N1. The seventh is considered a likely case, but officials weren't able to obtain a sample of the virus to confirm the strain.
Lynfield said the deaths are a reminder that flu can be a very serious illness. She said people shouldn't get complacent, especially during the holidays when people are traveling more and congregating.
"It is a good idea to remain cautious because, although we are seeing decreased influenza activity, there are parts of the United States that are experiencing widespread activity still," she said.
Lynfield said sick people should stay home evening if it means missing an important Thanksgiving event. And she said anyone who is eligible for vaccine should keep trying to get vaccinated.
That has not been possible for most people because vaccine supplies have been so limited. But the Health Department said Minnesota has now ordered nearly 1 million doses of vaccine.
Director of infectious diseases Kris Ehresmann said that's enough doses to justify expanding the group of people eligible to get vaccine to include the entire high-risk population; about 2.7 million people. It includes children ages 6 months to 24 years old, adults with chronic health conditions up to age 64, all health care workers, pregnant women and people who care for infants less than 6 months of age.
Ehresmann said some clinics that serve these populations still don't have vaccine, but she said they should receive it soon.
"For clinics that don't have vaccine that serve particularly, just for instance high-risk adults, we will have them begin the process of pre-booking or requesting vaccine from us, beginning on Monday the 30," Ehresmann said. "We'll start getting vaccine out to those providers."
Health officials expect that eventually Minnesota will receive enough vaccine for everyone who wants it, but won't speculate when that might be.
The Health Department is planning to activate a clinic locator tool on its Web site next Monday called Find-A-Flu Shot. The locator will contain vaccination information from clinics and public health departments throughout the state.