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Flu empties classrooms, fills clinics

Jennifer Rand takes her youngest daughter Maddie's temperature. All for of Rand's children from high school to elementary were home at the same time with the flu and Jennifer and her husband Mike were alternating taking days off work to care for them.

Coughing and hacking have become so commonplace in southeast Minnesota that it's hard for people to avoid exposure to regionally raging flu.

Some school classrooms are just half full because so many students are ill, while Mayo Clinic ExpressCare and the Mayo Clinic Hospital emergency department have their hands full.

"I can't remember being busier. The flu season two years ago was hard. But, this year, it seemed to start early," said Margaret McDonah, assistant Mayo ExpressCare supervisor and a family nurse practitioner.

The fear level increased after a 17-year-old Owatonna High School student died Tuesday after flu-like symptoms. Shannon Zwanziger stayed home from school, sought a diagnosis from a health provider and was told her ailment was "typical flu," the Owatonna People's press reported. But her condition changed Tuesday, her heart stopped and lifesaving efforts did not succeed.

Influenza has spread into nursing homes as well, reported Vicki Iocco, public health nurse with Goodhue County Public Health.


As of last week, when Zwanziger's illness had just begun, there had been 87 hospitalizations in Minnesota due to influenza, including 13 in southeast Minnesota, and one child's death attributed to the flu, Iocco said.

The CDC issued an official advisory last week that influenza A, H3N2, was already reported in all states, an early start for the flu season.

The CDC noted that a mutation of the flu virus means about 52 percent of flu samples collected were not closely matched to this year's vaccine, meaning the vaccine might lessen symptoms but isn't doing as good of a job preventing the illness this year.

Vaccine is still available, but immunity takes about two weeks to build up.

Rochester continues to be hit hard.

Last Friday, Century High School student Sarah Rand, 18, developed a fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and a temperature of 101.

On Saturday night, her sister, Rachel, 14, started getting sick, and her temperature reached 103.8 Monday morning.

The girls' mother, Jenny Rand, took both to the doctor.


"Their fever was so high that it was kind of scary," Rand said. "They were diagnosed with influenza."

Tuesday morning, Gibbs Elementary School called Mike and Jenny Rand. Their third daughter, 7-year-old Madelyn, was in the nurse's office with a headache.

"They took her temperature, and it was 101," Jenny Rand said.

The couple's fourth child, Michael, 11, awoke Wednesday morning with a fever of 103.9. He, too, has the illness.

Mike Rand did not get vaccinated. Jenny Rand did. Both have remained flu-free so far. Their two youngest kids got vaccinated at school while the two oldest kids did not get vaccinated until Monday when they went to the doctor. All four of the kids became ill.

Health officials emphasize that locals should get vaccinated, even though flu is already circulating widely throughout the region.

When seek care?

How do you know when your family member should seek medical care?


Mayo ExpressCare's McDonah said watch for a change in mental status, an inability to stay hydrated or trouble breathing. Any of those should be a trigger to head for the emergency room, McDonah said.

Others who should seek medical care if they have flu symptoms include youngsters, especially those younger than 1 year old; people older than 65 and people with long-term health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, asthma, liver or kidney disease.

It will help cut down on long wait times at area ERs and clinics if people who are generally healthy aside from flu symptoms to use the criteria above as a guide for when to seek medical care, McDonah said.

McDonah emphasized that it's essential for individuals who have influenza to stay home from school or work for seven days after the onset of symptoms, or until symptoms have fully resolved — whichever is longer. Otherwise, those individuals continue to spread the virus.

Students in the Rochester School District have been rocked by influenza for a couple of weeks. But schools regionally are being severely affected, some even with more than one type of illness circulating at the same time.

Chaela Schneider, of Plainview, said she took her son to the doctor, "and he tested positive both for strep and influenza A."

Her 7-year-old son, a first-grader, was one of about 20 students absent out of a total of 40 in the school's entire first grade.

"We all had the flu shot, too. So I was kind of surprised to see it," Schneider said. She works at Bright Horizons Day Care in Rochester, which sent three kids home Wednesday with symptoms of flu-like illness.


Stay home if you're sick

Renee Gusa, school nurse at Plainview-Elgin-Millville Elementary School, said "one day we had 50 kids out just in K through 3." That made an absenteeism rate of more than 12 percent.

"Even the teachers have some stuff going on, too. It's really hitting everybody," Gusa said.

In the Dover-Eyota school district, elementary school nurse Tammy Kreidermacher said the superintendent sent a note to parents noting that students who have flu-like symptoms should not return to school until they have been fever-free, without the use of fever-reducing medication, for 24 hours.

Dover-Eyota has about 520 students. About 60 to 70 were gone Monday and Tuesday. That's about the same percentage of absences as P-E-M reported. Schools are required to report unusual absenteeism to health officials.

"We report to the state at 5 percent — and we've been well above that," Kreidermacher said.

Jenny Rand comforts her daughter Maddie, while her son Michael plays a video game resting on the couch behind her. All four of Rand's children, from high school to elementary, were home at the same time with the flu. Jenny and her husband Mike are alternating taking days off work to care for them.

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