MANKATO — The first confirmed case of the flu has been recorded and it’s three weeks earlier than last year’s first case.
The timing, though, is no indication of whether we’ll have a “hot zone” year like last year in southern Minnesota — where hundreds came down with the illness and filled clinic and hospital waiting rooms — or a down year like the one before that.
Officials from Mayo Clinic Health System, the Mankato Clinic, the state’s Department of Health and public health officials from Blue Earth and Nicollet counties held a joint news conference Wednesday to let the public know they’re prepared in the event that southern Minnesota sees a record number of cases again. The other message: Everyone should get a flu shot.
The one case so far this season, which was just confirmed Tuesday, did not require hospitalization. Exactly which strain of flu it is will be answered later after Department of Health officials analyze it.
When those first cases do get analyzed, health department officials will get their first indications of how effective this year’s vaccine will be.
The vaccine, which is now widely available at clinics, pharmacies and drug stores, comes in a variety of forms. This year the new version is called a quadravalent vaccine, which vaccinates for four different strains, two from the A family and two from the B family.
Usually the vaccine comes ready to fight three strains, two A strains and one B, a so-called trivalent vaccine. But because of the ferocity of last year’s flu season, the new vaccine was beefed up as well to include an additional B strain.
Brad Krier, a Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist based in Mankato, said last year’s vaccine was a “pretty good match,” and that it proved effective about 60 percent of the time. Krier and Dr. Richard Peller said the vaccine’s general effectiveness rate year to year is closer to 70-90 percent for people who are otherwise healthy and don’t fall into the vulnerable demographics: the very old, and the very young.
The A strain causes more serious flu cases, so vaccine engineers include vaccine to combat two types of it. Type B typically is a milder strain. Last year, though, was a particularly aggressive flu virus across both strains. That prompted vaccine makers to include two types of both strains in a new quadravalent vaccine.
Krier, however, said there is no proof that this new one will be any more effective than the trivalent vaccine that will be available to anyone. But government officials are hoping it will.
“It makes sense to say we’re adding another strain, it should provide more protection. But we don’t have a lot of clinical evidence to say. Is adding another strain going to increase protection? We believe so.”
Doctors at Wednesday’s press conference encouraged people to get a shot, regardless of whether it’s quadravalent or trivalent. With the limited supply of quadravalent, Peller said it would be foolish to wait for more to become available instead of taking the trivalent that will be in good supply.
“The best way to avoid the flu is to get the flu shot,” Peller said. “The flu will make you sick as a dog.”
Added Mayo Clinic Health System physician Ronak Shah, “You’ll feel like you got hit by a truck.”
All health officials put out the usual caveats. Karen Swenson of Nicollet County and Jessica Elofson of Blue Earth County — both of whom work in public health — said employers should encourage employees to stay home if they’re sick.
Families, Swenson said, should have a plan in place in case flu strikes, such as who should take care of young children who shouldn’t be exposed to the virus.
Elofson reminded busy parents that adults need to take care of themselves as well as their children. Wash your kids’ toys more often than you normally would, and keep sick children home until they’re fever free for 24 hours.
The vast majority of vaccine available with be the typical “trivalent” vaccine, which combats three different flu strains: two A strains and one B strain.
Last year, the flu hit south-central Minnesota hard, resulting in 23 fatalities and 218 hospitalized cases. Statewide, there were 210 flu deaths and more than 3,000 hospitalized cases.