Elderly Minnesotans hit hard in latest flu wave

Minnesota is dealing with a flurry of flu cases and elderly Minnesotans are bearing the brunt of the disease.

State Health Department officials have confirmed 12 additional flu deaths, bringing the season total to 25. Three-quarters of the deaths so far have been in people age 65 and older.

"The elderly and older adults are being hit especially hard," state epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said.

The department's surveillance shows that flu activity has surged in recent weeks. Some of the newest deaths occurred in previous weeks and were only recently confirmed by the agency.

"This is more than we would typically see," Lynfield said.

Of the 19 elderly people who died, 15 were age 80 and older. That's a stark contrast from the pattern of H1N1 pandemic flu, which claimed 67 lives. Most of those deaths — nearly 80 percent — were in younger people.

Only three deaths have been attributed to the H1N1 flu strain this season. The vast majority of the cases this season involve the H3N2 strain, which has traditionally been more deadly for elderly people, Lynfield said.

During the most recent week of surveillance, the Health Department recorded outbreaks at 13 schools and seven long-term care facilities.

"There have also been 101 hospitalizations over this reporting period, which was March 13 to March 19," Lynfield said.

Typically the flu season would be starting to wind down by this time, but Lynfield said outbreaks in late March are not unheard of. She said there is still time for unvaccinated people to get vaccinated.

New studies show that the vaccine does not work as well in elderly people. But this year older people can take a new vaccine that contains a higher antigen content.

Older people will be better protected if younger people who respond better to the vaccine make sure they are vaccinated.

Lynfield said older people and anyone who is medically vulnerable should contact their doctor immediately if they suspect they have flu, so they can receive antiviral medications to lessen their symptoms.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.