Region wrestles with state's highest flu hospitalization rate

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  • Coronavirus

Jan. 14—MANKATO — A resurgent influenza season is hitting south-central Minnesota harder than any other region in the state.

Influenza caused 48 hospitalizations in area counties between Oct. 3-Jan. 8, according to the Minnesota Department of Health's weekly surveillance report released Thursday. The total accounts for about 11% of the 418 flu hospitalizations statewide during that period.

The region's flu hospitalization rate so far, about 16 per 100,000 residents, is the highest in Minnesota so far.

A local doctor said she's noticed a definite increase in patients coming in with respiratory symptoms, resulting in more influenza or COVID-19 cases.

"We feel like people think influenza is less of a threat," said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. "Influenza continues to be a virus that will hit the very young and very old and can have pretty significant consequences. It can land you in the hospital."

The state's median age for flu hospitalizations so far this season is 65. Minnesota did have its first pediatric influenza death confirmed in the latest report, however, one of 16 total flu fatalities statewide this season.

The 2020-2021 influenza season was atypical due to a host of mitigation strategies in place to stem COVID-19 spread, from mask mandates to social distancing requirements to limitations on gatherings. Just as those measures helped against COVID-19, they proved especially effective against the less contagious and less deadly influenza strains.

Clinics still tested for flu last season. There was just less of it circulating in communities.

With most mitigation strategies no longer in place during the early stages of this flu season, some reemergence of the virus was expected. The return to more typical behaviors, including more gatherings and less masking, seems to be one of the factors behind relatively early hospitalizations and cases this season, Johnson said.

Due to the absence of flu in the 2020-2021 season, experts are again having to remind people about the important role vaccines play in prevention. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed flu vaccinations nationwide are down 11% this season compared to the same time last season.

"We want to continue to take this seriously," Johnson said. "Vaccines are still the best tool we have as far as prevention. If we can prevent you from getting sick, that's the best course of action."

Similar to COVID-19 vaccines, flu vaccines are effective at limiting severe illnesses caused by the virus.

A new CDC study found vaccinations reduced severe influenza A cases — the main type circulating in Minnesota this season — in children by 78%. Health experts try to match each season's vaccines to the flu types they expect to circulate in a given season, but the study also indicated this season's vaccine even offered protection against other types as well.

"It's especially important that children get a flu vaccine in addition to their recommended COVID-19 vaccines this season," stated CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in a release announcing the study. "Flu season has started and currently flu vaccination is down in children, so now is the best time to get your child vaccinated if you have not already."

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