The state health department and Minnesota health systems say this could be the worst flu season they've seen in years, with flu case numbers so far rivaling those seen during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Hospitalizations are up, and some Twin Cities area hospitals are at or near capacity due to a surge in flu cases. Hospital emergency rooms and urgent care clinics have been especially busy in the past few days.
At Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, Minn., the hospital usually handles an average of 117 people a day in its emergency and urgent care departments. In the past few days, patient numbers have been way above average and even reached 195 one day. About a quarter of the patients staying at the hospital have tested positive for the flu.
Dr. Brent Asplin, president of Fairview Medical Group, says more people are seeking care across the Fairview system.
"We've seen big spikes in demand at our emergency rooms and our urgent cares with influenza and influenza-like illness, and a lot of patients who have been hospitalized with it as well, particularly in our community hospitals," said Asplin.
Fairview has also seen an increase in staff calling in sick. At Fairview Southdale, administrative staff members who have nursing degrees have had to help cover shifts for nurses who are out sick. Many of Fairview's smaller hospitals are at or near capacity, so officials have been monitoring available beds closely and transferring patients if necessary.
Asplin says he hopes people will heed warnings and get vaccinated.
"It is not too late to get your flu vaccine," he said. "It doesn't prevent 100 percent of influenza cases. It's very important to go out and get that vaccine if you haven't so far this season."
State health officials are also encouraging people to get vaccinated, and say the vaccine is well-matched to the strains of flu that are circulating.
The Minnesota Department of Health has been tracking deaths, hospitalizations and outbreaks at schools and nursing homes. The latest data available from the department shows 123 people were hospitalized with lab-confirmed influenza during the week that ended Dec. 22. That's 40 percent of all the hospitalizations for flu reported so far this season. There have been two flu-related deaths.
"If we continue to see that, that this season really will be a severe season potentially," said Kris Ehresmann, an epidemiologist with the state health department. "We've gone from very, very mild seasons to normal and perhaps beyond normal in terms of severity. So this season it is busy, it's early and yet it definitely has the potential to be a severe season."
The last busy flu season Minnesota had was in 2009. But that was during the H1N1 pandemic, so Ehresmann says it isn't a very good comparison. In terms of seasonal flu, she says it's been longer since Minnesota has seen it this bad.
"That year  obviously was a busy, very severe year because of the pandemic, but the year before that was mild and the years after that have been mild," she said. "So with the exception of that unique situation in terms of the pandemic, we've had some very mild seasons, and it appears that this season is going to be well beyond normal."
Health officials say for the most part, people with flu symptoms should be able to treat themselves at home. Anti-viral medications are available, but are usually only given to people at high risk for developing complications.
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