Weather Forecast


On the flu front again: Influenza season picking up in area, statewide

Nurses know the importance of flu shots as Sanford Bemidji Medical Center nurse Rachel Johnson holds her 18-month-old daughter, Macena, as she gets her shot on Friday morning. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — It’s here.

Influenza is now considered “widespread” throughout Minnesota, according to the latest state Department of Health weekly report, released Thursday, which recaps the last week of 2013.

In that week, the Department of Health reported 71 hospitalizations for influenza, with flu activity continuing to increase. In northwest Minnesota, four hospitalizations were reported, bringing the total to seven for the season.

Dr. Brian Livermore, chairman of the Infection Control Committee at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, said that figure can be a bit misleading as seven hospitalizations results in 4.5 incidents per 100,000 people, ranking the northwest region as the second-hardest-hit of Minnesota’s eight regions, behind only southeast Minnesota with 6.5.

“The problem is that the estimates of how many are vaccinated is not good,” he said.

Early-season forecasts reported that less than 60 percent of Minnesotans received the flu vaccine this year, Livermore said.

Minnesota is about a week and a half to two weeks behind where flu season was at this time last year, but Livermore said the beginnings of the flu season —- the early “curves” on surveillance graphs — are nearly identical, meaning health professionals are expecting this season to mimic last year.

Last season was a difficult year, with more than 3,067 hospitalizations and 231 deaths statewide.

“I’ve seen some tough years,” said Livermore, who guesses he’s served on the committee now for a quarter-century, “but I think last year really stuck out.”

Livermore suggests people should begin carrying hand sanitizer to protect themselves against the spread of the flu.

There are two main ways flu spreads:

The first is through droplets of secretions from coughing, sneezing, even talking if you’re spraying a bit of saliva. Typically, this occurs when you are within 3 feet of someone, so Livermore advises you keep some distance between yourself and others.

The second way is through “virus shed,” occurring throughout the environment. For example, if someone carrying the flu virus picks up the stylus and signs his name on the credit card pad at a local convenience store, and then you, several customers later, use the same stylus, you’ve got the virus on your hands.

If you sanitize right away, you’ll likely be fine.

“But if you scratch your face — your nose, your mouth, a watery eye — you’re picking up the virus now,” Livermore said. “The next thing you know, you’ve been exposed.”

It’s also not that easy to just say “stay home” if you’re not feeling well. While doing so can help slow the spread of the virus, an infected person carries the virus for a day or two before he or she is symptomatic.

That’s why, again, Livermore suggests that everyone be vaccinated — not to just protect themselves, but to protect all those who are at most risk for developing complications from the flu.

“Because if you are visiting a 4-month-old child, too young to be vaccinated, and you are shedding the virus, that’s very dangerous,” Livermore said. “You would never ever willingly or knowingly do that, put the child at risk, but unless you get vaccinated, you really should stay away from those kids.”

He said he tells parents of young children to not be afraid to ask visitors if they’ve been vaccinated before welcoming them into their home.

If you’re sick

The flu isn’t often dangerous. But it can be.

“A lot of times, the flu is a miserable time for you, but it’s not terribly serious unless you fall into certain groups,” Livermore said.

The Department of Health reports that those most at risk for becoming seriously ill include people age 65 and older; children younger than 2; pregnant women; people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease; and American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Livermore said anyone at risk for complications who suspects they are not recovering as expected should call into the clinic to check on recommendations.

A doctor might suggest they go directly to the emergency room, he noted.

“We don’t want everyone to say, ‘Well it’s just the flu,’ because for some people, it’s really dangerous,” he said.