By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
NORTH MANKATO — Health officials have not said this year’s flu season will reach pandemic proportions, but they are saying it’s a year worse than normal.
Officials from health care providers, the state Department of Health and Mankato Area Public Schools gathered Wednesday to bring the public up to speed on the status of flu cases in southern Minnesota — and to again remind people to get flu shots and wash their hands.
Southern Minnesota remains a so-called “hot spot” for flu with 19 cases per 100,000 residents. The next hottest spot for flu is the Twin Cities with 12 cases per 100,000 residents.
“Other areas are starting to catch up,” said epidemiologist Brad Krier of the Minnesota Department of Health.
Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato announced it has implemented tougher rules for visitors at its 15 hospitals in Minnesota and South Dakota. The Mankato Clinic said its Urgent Care numbers are up 40 percent over last year, and Mayo Clinic’s Urgent Care numbers have doubled.
Mankato Area Public School Supt. Sheri Allen said that before winter break the district saw a spike in both student and staff absences. This week, however, she said numbers are back to normal.
At several instances during a news conference Wednesday, health care officials made mention of the H1N1 pandemic that occurred several years ago and how the coalition of area health care and public health agencies came together to vaccinate thousands.
“We’re very good at doing this,” said Kevin Burns, spokesman for Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.
During the 2009’s H1N1 pandemic, the Mankato area set up mass vaccinations at Minnesota State University and got thousands vaccinated in a few days.
Health officials said during this year’s flu season some locations have actually seen more patients than during 2009.
Statewide, there have been roughly 900 people hospitalized since the flu season began in October. Locally, Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato has seen 85, including 25 who are in the hospital now.
Krier reiterated that it looks like this year’s vaccine is proving effective.
Included in the vaccine are inoculations for three strains: two from the A family and one from the B. Krier said 91 percent of the viruses examined were a good match for the vaccine. Of those who had the A strain, the vaccine was 99 percent effective. On the B strain, it was 70 percent effective.
Some, however, will debate the effectiveness.
Mike Osterholm, former state epidemiologist who is now employed by the University of Minnesota, said their research suggests vaccines are only 59 percent effective.
“Today’s flu shot is like an iPhone 1.0,” Osterholm said. “What we need is an iPhone 10.0.”
Current Department of Health officials, though, are advising people to get the shot.
“Sixty percent effectiveness is better than zero percent,” Krier said.
Even people who have already had the flu should still get a flu shot, Krier said. It’s possible to contract the other strain of flu. Also, it’s possible that a person’s bout with flu could be shortened with a shot.
Greg Kutcher, president and CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, said it’s important to remember how the flu virus spreads. The key, he said, is droplets. That’s why it’s so important to cover your cough and to wash your hands.
Tamiflu has been prescribed locally to some patients, but doctors from both the Mayo and Mankato Clinic said doctors are following general protocols outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The protocols basically state that the Tamiflu anti-viral drug is being prescribed for the very young, the elderly and people whose general health may warrant a beefed-up arsenal to fight off the virus.
Beyond that, they say, their recommendations are for people to stay home from work or school if they’re sick. And they don’t recommend people come to a clinic or hospital setting unless their symptoms are getting progressively worse.
This might be difficult advice to follow given the rising numbers of people getting very sick, as well as the growing death toll, even among young people who are otherwise healthy.
A St. Louis Park Senior High School student, 14-year-old Carly Christenson, became the fifth to die in Minnesota this flu season. Another teenager from Texas diedof flu complications in St. Paul after visiting the area.