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Flu cases spike in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Health officials predict it could be one of the worst flu seasons in years in Minnesota.

Flu patients have been filling urgent care centers and emergency rooms across the state. More than 120 Minnesotans were hospitalized with the flu in the week ending Dec. 22, nearly twice the number of cases in the previous week, health officials said. And it’s still early in the flu season.

“That suggests this has the potential to be severe,” said Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann.

At clinics in Bemidji, Blackduck, Walker and Cass Lake, seven cases – six in the month of December – were reported. At Sanford Medical Center, five cases of the flu were reported in December, according to spokeswoman Lindsey Wangberg.

The Centers for Disease Control warned in early December of a potentially severe flu season. Through Dec. 22, flu was classified as widespread in 31 states, according to the CDC’s website.

Since the start of the flu season in October, 297 people have been hospitalized, officials said.

“It’s the highest number of patients with flu since H1N1,” said Dr. Brent Asplin, chief clinical officer for Fairview Health Services. “Over the weekend all our community hospitals were at or near capacity.”

During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, 1,800 people in Minnesota were hospitalized over a 12-month period.

Some hospitals have added staffed beds to accommodate patients during this season’s outbreak, health officials said. The health department is tracking hospital bed availability on a daily basis, according to the Star Tribune.

“A number of hospitals are at very high capacity,” said Jane Braun, director of emergency preparedness for the Health Department. “No one is turning patients away, but some are adding extras wings and using those types of strategies to absorb additional demand.”

Hospital staffers are not immune to the flu.

“We are seeing high numbers of sick calls for both staff and their kids,” said Asplin. “But it’s important that they stay home from work or school.”

This year’s most common strain, H3N2, is also causing more severe symptoms than normal, according to Ehresmann. That could be contributing to the number of people showing up in emergency rooms and urgent care centers, he added.