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Flu spreading in northern Minnesota

BEMIDJI – While northwest Minnesota has lagged behind the rest of nation in terms of this year’s influenza epidemic, that is not expected to last.

“You can hear the whistle, you can see the lights, you just can’t see the train (yet),” said Dr. Brian Livermore, chairman of the Infectious Disease Committee at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.

Sanford Bemidji reported Friday that it has had 25 confirmed cases of Influenza A since the beginning of the season, 13 of which were reported in the last week alone.

The flu is widespread in 47 states, up from 41 states a week ago, according to the Associated Press. The flu this year includes a strain that tends to make people sicker and health officials have forecasted a potentially bad flu season, though it may have already peaked in some parts of the nation.

Of Minnesota’s eight regions, the northwest thus far has seen the fewest number of influenza hospitalizations and cases through Jan. 5, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The metro, the MDH reported, has had more than 600 hospitalizations and about 400 cases reported. South central Minnesota has had the highest number of confirmed cases at more than 600. Northwest Minnesota has reported fewer than 50 cases and even fewer hospitalizations.

“It’s surprising that we’re the lowest of all the regions in the state,” Livermore said. “But that’s just because we haven’t gone over the crest of the hill and picked up speed.”

Livermore encouraged everyone to take common-sense steps, like washing hands and staying home if ill, to slow the spread of the virus.

“The important thing is for people to realize that there are some things that they can do to prevent (the spread) from getting out of hand,” Livermore said, “just by changing some behaviors.”

And, also, by getting the flu vaccination, which Livermore said is a “very good match” against the spreading flu strain.

Livermore said the vaccination does not only protect the person who receives it, but also those around him who are unable to get it themselves.

“We all need to get one for ourselves, but we all need to get one to protect those who can’t (get a vaccination),” he said, referencing the motto of the Three Musketeers, “It’s all for one, one for all.”

Minnesota has had 23 flu-related deaths in the first week of 2013, bring the total of deaths to 27 for the flu season.

The Minnesota Department of Health reports there have been 1,121 hospitalized in lab-confirmed influenza this season, 401 of whom were hospitalized from Dec. 30 to Jan. 5.

People who are sick with flu symptoms are advised to stay home from work or school to help stop further spread of the outbreak.

Livermore said children can be infectious for up to a week, adults for usually three to five days. You start counting from the time symptoms appear.

“If you have a sick child at home and you take the time off to care for that child, the incubation period is about two or three days or so,” he said. “It’s very possible that you could be coming down and spreading the virus when you go back to work, even when you don’t feel like it.”

But if a caregiver has had a flu shot, it would make further spread less likely, he noted.

Some hospitals in the state are restricting visitors, but those steps have not been taken at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.

However, the hospital is asking the public to refrain from visiting the hospital if they have any sign of illness, including a cough, running nose or fever.

“Patients are typically very susceptible and at great risk for complication when exposed to these viruses,” the hospital stated in a press release. “If you need to come to the hospital for care or treatment and have a respiratory illness or flu-like symptoms, you will be asked to wear a mask.”

Should you go in?

Livermore said there really is no need to seek medical care for an uncomplicated version of the flu.

If you have a fever and you have a cough and you feel like you’ve been run over by a train, yes, you will feel terrible, he agrees.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything they can do special or differently for you (at a clinic) than if you stayed home,” he said.

Yet, going to the clinic or hospital will risk further spread of the virus to those with compromised immune systems, he noted.

“We have to think about ourselves, but we have to also think about everyone else,” he said. “If you have the flu and you don’t have any other strange or bizarre components to it … a confirmation of the diagnosis is not really necessary.”