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Flu deaths climb to 60 this season

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Flu shot
Chief pharmacist Ali A. Yasin (L) injects Juan Castro (R) with influenza vaccine as assistant Agripinno Camiolo looks on at New York City Pharmacy in Manhattan on Jan. 15, 2013 in New York City.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Flu activity remains high in Minnesota and many people continue to experience a severe form of the illness.  

The Minnesota Department of Health released new case numbers Thursday showing that 33 people died from flu-related complications during the week of Jan. 6-12. That brings the state's influenza death toll to 60 so far this flu season. Hospitalizations also remained high with 476 people admitted for influenza care.

However, the agency says there's nothing particularly unusual about the situation.

"We are seeing those numbers at a much higher level than we've seen in recent influenza seasons," said Kris Ehresmann, director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the Health Department. But she said that's also a reflection of how mild recent flu seasons have been in comparison.

Still, there's no doubt that flu is taking a significant toll on Minnesota. With 1,842 people hospitalized for flu so far this season, hospitalizations have already surpassed the total number of flu admissions that occurred during the H1N1 flu pandemic season in 2009. 

And there are no signs yet that the flu outbreak is peaking.

"Really the message is that we have had exceptionally vigorous influenza activity for the first two weeks of reporting," said Ehresmann. "What we're looking for is, will we see a reduction? Will we see that we have kind of peaked? And we can't say that right now with the data that we have."

What health officials can say is that this outbreak resembles a typical flu season — albeit a severe one. Flu is hitting older people the hardest, while Ehresmann said there were no deaths reported among anyone under age 18.  

"The majority of deaths are occurring in individuals who are 80 years of age and older. And the majority, meaning 60 percent or greater, of our hospitalizations are in persons 65 and older," said Ehresmann. "That breakdown really reflects what we would expect to see with typical seasonal influenza."

The H3N2 flu virus continues to account for the majority of Minnesota's confirmed influenza cases. That strain of flu is typically harder on older people and is also associated with more severe flu seasons. 

Long-term care facilities are on the front lines of the flu surge. They saw a big jump in flu cases last week with 46 skilled nursing facilities reporting confirmed flu outbreaks. Outbreaks at long-term care facilities total 107 since the start of the flu season.

Kids have also experienced their share of flu. Outbreaks of influenza-like illness last week were reported in 92 schools, compared to just five schools the previous week. The surge in school outbreaks likely reflects the return of students to classes following the holiday break. Since the start of the season, 254 outbreaks of influenza-like illness in schools have been reported. 

Public health officials say a typical flu surge lasts four to five weeks. Minnesota is already a little more than halfway through that time frame with this outbreak. 

It appears that Minnesota could be on pace this year to record the highest number of flu deaths in five years. Longer-term comparisons are not possible since the Health Department changed the way it calculates flu deaths a few years ago. The record high of 70 confirmed flu deaths was set during the 2010-2011 flu season, Ehresmann said.

Ehresmann said she's not surprised to see the numbers holding steady. 

"I think if we continue to see this level for three more weeks then that would be surprising because that would be a much longer, sustained peak than we might have seen in the past," said Ehresmann. "But we're not at the point where we can make that assessment."