27 flu-related deaths prompt state to redefine outbreak

Flu spreads rapidly
Dr. Sassan Naderi holds a vial of flu vaccine at the Premier Care walk-in health clinic on Jan. 10, 2013 in New York City. The flu season has hit parts of the country particularly hard this year.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A big surge in flu cases and deaths has redefined how health officials are describing the current flu outbreak. The Minnesota Department of Health is now declaring that Minnesota is in the midst of a severe flu season.

The agency reports that 401 people were admitted to hospitals last week for laboratory-confirmed flu. The death toll from flu has jumped to 27 people.

Public health officials say they still don't consider this to be an unusual flu season.

Just days ago the Health Department was hesitant to describe this flu season as severe despite reports from many hospitals that they were overwhelmed with patients. It is still very early in the flu season. But when the numbers came in this week it was clear that there had been a jump in hospitalized patients, rivaling numbers last seen during the 2009 flu pandemic. That meant that flu was widespread and it was severe enough to make many people very sick.

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Influenza activity by year

The pattern this season is familiar, said Ed Ehlinger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.

"It is following the course that we anticipate. Of the hospitalizations that are occurring most are within people over the age of 65," Ehlinger said.

Sixty-two percent of the people who have been hospitalized for flu so far in Minnesota are over the age of 65. Among those that have died from the disease, 23 of the 27 deaths were also in people over the age of 65.

That's a very different scenario than the pandemic year when most of the people with severe illness were under age 25. But it's not unusual at all when it comes to typical flu years.

State epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said elderly people tend to have very good vaccination rates but they don't respond as well to the vaccine.

"We should vaccinate the people around them to help protect them, in addition to vaccinating them," Lynfield said. "They won't respond anywhere nearly as well as a young, healthy person. But if they respond somewhat it's better than not having the vaccine."

Flu vaccine is still available, but demand has grown considerably in the past few weeks.

The national supply of vaccine is about 15 million doses lower this year, said Kris Ehresmann, director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the Health Department. Manufacturers made less because they had a lot of leftover vaccine last year when the flu season was mild.

"That's why even when it's a mild season it's important to take advantage of the vaccine," Ehresmann said. "It's almost like you're reserving a place for the more severe season so that we'll have enough vaccine."

Ehresmann estimates that Minnesota may be about halfway through the peak of its flu season. Typically most flu cases occur within a four- to five- week span in any flu season, although she said there are exceptions.

By the end of the flu season, Minnesota usually averages 30 to 40 deaths from flu. Ehresmann said the state will probably exceed that range this year.