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Flu season ramps up across Minnesota

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A nurse practitioner prepares a seasonal flu vaccination for a patient at a clinic in Chicago.
M. Spencer Green | AP file 2009

Reports of flu cases are coming into Minnesota's health department from all corners of the state. In its weekly update on flu activity released Thursday, the state Department of Health announced that influenza activity is now considered widespread. Since the official start of the flu season in October, more than three dozen schools have experienced flu outbreaks.

The predominant virus that is circulating is expected to cause less severe illness than the strain that put nearly 6,500 Minnesotans in hospital last year.

It's an H1 strain, instead of an H3 — and that makes a big difference in how the virus affects people, said Karen Martin, an epidemiologist at the state health department.

"In years where H3 is dominant, we do tend to see more severe disease, particularly in the elderly," she said. "Hopefully that trend will continue with an H1 year being at least somewhat milder."

In simple terms, Martin said we're dealing with a weaker virus this year. That's good, she said, because last year's flu season was one of the worst in recent history. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 80,000 people died from flu last year in the U.S.

Martin does not expect the virus to pack such a heavy punch this time around. But people who get sick from flu will still feel miserable.

"Influenza AH1 will still knock you off your feet. If you're lucky you might be home in bed for a week. If you're unlucky you might have some complications that would put you in the hospital or worse," said Martin.

A weaker virus also means the flu vaccine is expected to be more effective. Last year's shot only helped ward off flu about a third of the time. But public health officials say early lab results suggest this year's formulation could help more than half of vaccine recipients avoid getting sick.

Martin said she suspects more people have gotten flu shots this year after being scared by last year's terrible outbreak.

That's true for at least one Bemidji family.

Rachel Johnson with her then-2-year-old son, Walter.
Rachel Johnson holds her then-2-year-old son, Walter, in their Bemidji home in February 2018.
John Enger | MPR News

Rachel Johnson, her husband and two young sons were all smacked by flu around this time last year.

"Well we went to the clinic and they did the swab that they stick up your nose. So we definitely had it," she said.

Johnson said she coughed like a chain smoker for two months. And even worse — she felt responsible for her coughing children. Her family did not get flu shots last year, a mistake she swore she wouldn't repeat.

This fall, she got the vaccine for herself and her youngest son. That's half of her household of four people. She said her other child was too scared to get vaccinated and her husband did not think he needs it.

To ward off the flu virus, Johnson added hand sanitizer to every room in her house. She uses disinfecting wipes when she cleans. And she has even tried some unproven methods.

"I diffuse essential oils that are supposed to have, like purifying qualities. There's one blend called 'Purification' and I do lavender," said Johnson. "And then I do a spoonful of honey and a drop of lemon essential oil, and give it to my kids every day."

Johnson said she doesn't really care if her concoction works. She was sick for two months last year and it was awful. She said she will try anything with even a small chance of preventing another bought of flu.

Public health officials recommend evidence-based strategies for reducing your chances of getting flu. Martin said the old rules still apply and they're good rules.

"Stay home if you're sick," said Martin. "And besides that, just be really conscious of how you cough and sneeze. Do it into a tissue. Wash your hands. All those kinds of things. Although they sound tiresome, they can help."

And even though flu is here now, Martin said it's not too late to get a flu shot.