Flu in Minnesota: Children's Hospitals seeing record number of ER visits

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Flu shots at Children's Hospital
Medical assistant Brittany Williams gives a flu shot to Oliver Sherman Dec. 15 at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Flu season has come on strong in Minnesota. Many hospitals around the state are filled with patients sick from influenza and other viruses. Two children under the age of 18 have died from influenza in Minnesota this season.

Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota has been particularly busy, with a record 400 to 450 emergency department visits each day for the past two weeks. The number of visits is usually half that during this time of year.

Why has the emergency department at Children's been so busy?

All of the influenza treated so far has been the Type A flu that's been circulating. It doesn't match the vaccine very well and it's a strain that's particularly hard on very young children and elderly patients.

Children's has also treated a lot of RSV, which is another respiratory virus that causes wheezing and coughing. They've also seen a lot of kids with stomach viruses that have caused severe dehydration.

How is Children's managing the surge in ER visits?

This has been a challenge because, many of the hospital's staff members have gotten sick — or they have kids of their own who have been sick.

Children's has had to call in more staffers to help. They've tapped floating nurse teams and have used visiting nurses. They have also opened up some overflow space to treat all of the extra kids they're seeing. In some cases, they've had to divert older children arriving by ambulance to adult hospitals in the metro.

Is this happening at other children's hospitals?

Yes. The University of Minnesota Mason Children's Hospital has also seen a significant surge in flu cases over the past few weeks. The same is true for adult patients at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. A number of other hospital systems have reported high flu activity and have put visitor restrictions in place.

As students around the state begin their long holiday break, they'll take their illnesses out of their schools. Will that help ease the flu situation?

Kids won't be congregating in classrooms soon, so that helps reduce spread among their peers. But they'll go home and spend more time with their younger siblings and maybe grandparents and other relatives during the holidays. That could actually spread flu more within the community.

Flu can be especially hard on elderly people; that's the population most at risk of death from flu. What can elderly people do to protect themselves during the holidays?

Older people should avoid holding and kissing infants who have coughs and colds, and they should try to avoid being around ill people, according to Patsy Stinchfield, director of infection control at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. If they can't do that, they should separate themselves by 6 feet or more from someone who is sick.

"It's a tough order," Stinchfield said. "It's the holiday season. We all want to get together. And you can see it at the end of the season, you look back and you can see where the peaks are ... after the holiday weeks that we're in right now and it has to do with families gathering and large crowds gathering and things like that. That's just what flu likes to work with."

Should people get vaccinated even though the vaccine isn't not well-matched to the strain that's circulating?

Yes.

Stinchfield said the vaccine this year is like expecting your identical twin to show up, but getting another sibling instead. Some of the genes are related, but the match is not perfect. That doesn't mean it won't work at all, but it's likely less effective. However, almost all of the kids who have been admitted to Children's ICU in the past few weeks were not vaccinated.