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Early influenza season putting 'pretty significant strain' on Southeast Minnesota health care systems

Like much of the United States, Minnesota is seeing an early wave of influenza infections this winter. Regional health providers are encouraging flu vaccinations and other measures to help prevent illness.

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Connie Radke, LPN administers a flu vaccine during a drive-through flu vaccination clinic Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at Olmsted Medical Center Northwest Clinic in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo
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ROCHESTER — As a late fall RSV surge begins to recede in Minnesota, an early influenza season is taking hold. Southeast Minnesota health systems are seeing an unseasonable uptick in flu cases, driven mostly by the influenza A strain, per the latest Minnesota Department of Health data.

"Our flu activity right now is much higher than what we normally see, especially given the time frame," said Matthew Giljork, an Olmsted County Public Health epidemiologist. "Flu activity in early October, early November is usually pretty low, and then it starts to increase after Christmas and New Year's."

But flu cases are on the rise nationwide. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control's Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report shows that Minnesota's flu activity level jumped from low to high between Nov. 12 and 26. At the state level, as of Nov. 26, 1,147 Minnesotans have been hospitalized for the flu this year.

"We're seeing a really rapid increase early on in the flu season, which combined with the activity that we're seeing with RSV and COVID, is putting a pretty significant strain on our health care systems and is very unseasonal," Giljork said.

The latest flu report from MDH shows that 5.76% of patients seeking care outpatient clinic visits are experiencing influenza-like illness — about double the state's prepandemic baseline of 2.8%.

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Though the state's RSV surge appears to have peaked in mid-November, other respiratory diseases are still at play, so testing to pinpoint which viral illness a patient has is becoming more common in clinics.

"We've now, for a little while, already recognized that we need to try to identify what illness is actually occurring," said Holly Wenger, infection preventionist and registered nurse at Gundersen St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Wabasha. "After the provider does an assessment, he can actually do a test for flu, RSV and COVID, and then we can really pinpoint ... what might be circulating in our community."

Across Southeast Minnesota, pediatricians are extending their appointment hours to accommodate an unusual early surge in RSV infections this year.

As for why this year's flu season is hitting earlier than usual, Giljork said decreased immunity to the flu could be a factor, as COVID precautions like wearing face masks and social distancing in 2020 and 2021 also kept flu infections low.

"But when we look at the Southern Hemisphere, they saw the exact same thing — they saw a really aggressive flu season really early on, so it's definitely not an Olmsted County or Minnesota-specific thing."

Lower flu vaccination rates during the height of the COVID pandemic could also be a factor, said Leah Espinda-Brandt, OCPH disease prevention and control nurse manager. In Olmsted County, Espinda-Brandt said 20% of residents between the ages of 19 and 46 have gotten vaccinated this year. Flu vaccination is higher among Olmsted County adults 47 and older at 42%.

"This is pretty similar to what we saw in 2017 and 2018," Espinda-Brandt said. "For each age range, we're seeing about a 3% increase in vaccinations over the last week."

For those who haven't received a flu shot this year, Wenger said it is not too late.

"We do have some flu vaccine available yet, and we offer those at our Alma (Wisconsin) clinic as well as the Wabasha clinic," Wenger said. "We have a retail pharmacy here on site [where] they offer the offer the flu vaccine there, too."

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In Olmsted Medical Center's network, no appointments are needed for flu vaccinations at the Rochester Northwest Clinic from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 8 and Dec. 15, and OMC's pharmacies in Rochester, Chatfield and Pine Island are offering walk-in flu shots from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.

"As the holidays are coming up at the end of the month, it does take about two weeks for immunity to begin," Espinda-Brandt said. "So, we encourage in the next week or two to get vaccinated so that you'd be immune for those holiday festivities at the end of the year."

Other preventative measures include face masks, proper hand hygiene and staying home when you're not feeling well, according to Wenger.

"A lot of people are staying at home and just taking care of themselves," Wenger said of those who are sick due to the flu. "But if they're at all (questioning), 'What's going on here? I'm not sure I'm feeling well.' They can always call their primary care provider to get additional care directions."

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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