Vaccinations are available now for the coming flu season. State health officials say last year they saw half the normal number of flu cases. They say the upcoming flu season may pack a punch.
After a couple years of the same old flu, there are two new types in town.
"If you want to know where they came from... The ultimate origin was Victoria, Australia, and Wisconsin," said Kris Ehresmann, the infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health, where she and other top officials gave a preview of the coming flu season.
Ehresmann said fewer people than normal were sick with the flu over the past two years. That could be because the strain of flu was the same, allowing more people to become vaccinated.
With new flu strains, Ehresmann says Minnesota may experience a regular flu season.
"But I can tell you that, in all the years that I've been working with influenza, we've never been able to predict exactly what's going to happen for the flu season," Ehresmann said. "We can't do that for this year either."
Vaccine targeting the new flu strains is already available in Minnesota, but it won't necessarily protect people from a third flu threat: a variation of swine flu that Ehresmann has been monitoring. It's transmitted through direct contact with pigs. There have been about 150 cases reported nationwide over the past few weeks. Veterinarians at the Minnesota State Fair will be on the lookout for sick pigs. Health officials are warning older fairgoers and those under age 5 to stay away from the swine building.
No one should be scared, Ehresmann said, because the resulting illness from this type of swine flu is mild. She said state officials are watching closely to see if this swine flu variation mutates into one that is transmittable from person to person.
Ehresmann explains, "I didn't have anything to do with pigs, and you didn't have anything to do with pigs, and we're together and we share this influenza. And that would be the next step of concern and that's when we would be looking at whether or not it would be important to have the vaccine."
The state is working to limit the number of all types of flu cases by vaccinating healthcare workers who could pass the illness to vulnerable patients. For the past two years, a program called FluSafe tracked healthcare facility workers' vaccinations in a centralized state database. State health commissioner Edward Ehlinger says about 80 percent of the 145 hospitals in Minnesota participate in FluSafe.
"We believe that of those 20 percent of hospitals that are not participating directly in FluSafe, they still have vaccination programs in their hospitals," Ehlinger said. "They have not adopted the FluSafe structure, in terms of collecting the data, submitting the data and doing those kinds of things."
Currently nursing homes lag behind hospitals in reporting the workers they vaccinate. About 60 percent of the 375 nursing homes in the state are part of the FluSafe program. Patti Cullen, president of Care Providers of Minnesota, says technology is likely also a hurdle for many of those facilities.
"We are behind in terms of percent participation certainly. There are a lot of things that it takes a few years for the word to get out and for folks to understand how to participate and the benefits. That's why I think this year we're going to see a huge increase in the number of nursing facilities."
Cullen says many nursing homes are overhauling their computers to meet data collection requirements included in President Barack Obama's healthcare law, so they may be able to participate in FluSafe soon.