Holiday bummer: Flu spreads widely in Minnesota just in time for season's gatherings

Flu vaccine
Medical assistant Lim Ros administers a flu vaccine at Central Pediatrics in St. Paul.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News 2011

Outbreaks of influenza in Minnesota schools are expected to ease as students head for winter break. The bad news: sick kids will likely spread the virus at holiday gatherings over the next two weeks.

“Kids may share pop cans and may not have the best respiratory etiquette with covering their coughs and sneezes and doing a lot of hand washing,” said Noreen Kleinfehn-Wald, a public health supervisor for Scott County Public Health.

“It’s really important at this time to be judicious with who you’re spending time with,” she said.

Influenza has hit Scott County schools hard, with one school — Shakopee West Middle School — reporting nearly 30 percent of students out with flu-like symptoms on Dec. 16. Kleinfehn-Wald said the number of absences have since gone down.

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Officials at the Minnesota Department of Health said the active strain of influenza can affect who is getting sick.

"[Influenza] B is the dominant strain, and we know that when B is circulating we see a lot more disease in children and young adults, and that's really what's playing out this year,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the health department.

Ehresmann advises people to think of those most vulnerable to the flu — such as young children and the elderly — as they decide whether to show up to holiday gatherings sick.

"Your illness, while manageable for you, may be devastating for someone else, so just always keep that in mind,” she said.

The health department has reported six flu-related deaths in the state so far this season. All of them have been adults.

Ehresmann said health officials won’t know until later in the season how effective this year’s flu vaccine is, but she advised people to get vaccinated.

“Really anyone over 6 months of age should be vaccinated, in particular we want to make sure that people who are at highest risk for complications from influenza are vaccinated,” she said.

That includes young children, the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and American Indian and Alaska natives, she said.