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Flu spreading across Minnesota
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Kris Ehresman of the Minnesota Health Department says the number of flu cases across the state is on the rise. But she says the Twin Cities area has not yet been hit very hard. (MPR file photo)
State officials are noticing an increase in the number of flu cases. Outbreaks are reported throughout the state and they appear to gaining ground in the Twin Cities, which hasn't tallied very many cases so far. The Minnesota Department of Health also announced today that not many chidren took advantage of free flu vaccinations, so the department is opening up the shots to all metro-area kids.

St. Paul, Minn. — A week ago, word had spread that the flu vaccine was in short supply. In response, hundreds of anxious parents jammed the Minnesota Department of Health phone lines wondering if they could still get a dose for their kids.

Some parents were in luck. The Health Department had just received 2,600 doses of the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Visiting Nurses Agency. But, the doses were reserved for high-risk kids who were very young or had chronic health conditions. Anticipating a crush of these patients, the health department purchased another 2,700 doses just a few days later.

Today, health officials are scratching their heads because that demand never materialized. Kris Ehresman, the department's immunization program manager, blames the holidays, lack of media attention and peoples' fears of long lines.

"Whatever the thinking was ... we were not seeing people coming to these clinics, and we want to use this vaccine. We certainly would hate to waste it," says Ehresman.

Overall, people are understanding of the need to do this (limit visitors). Nobody wants to make anyone else sick, so I think the buy-in from the community is pretty good.
- Michael Oleson, St. Cloud Hospital

The flu vaccine is now available to all children in the metro area. Ehresman says if Twin Cities public health clinics don't get enough kids, adults will be given the vaccine. Clinics outside of the metro area are still restricting the vaccine to very young children and kids with chronic health conditions.

The flu is beginning to pick up across the state. At St. Cloud Hospital, lab technicians have reported more than 100 cases of type A influenza in the past week. Michael Olesen is an infection control specialist at the hospital.

"They're not cultured. It's just the rapid test that doesn't have 100 percent accuracy, but it's close enough to give us an idea that there's a lot going on out there," he says.

Olesen thinks many of the St. Cloud cases got their start in North Dakota, where the flu was first detected in the middle of October. He says a few weeks ago the hospital in Fargo was so overwhelmed it had to divert some of its cases to the hospital in Alexandria, which is not far from St. Cloud.

To try to prevent further spread of the infection, St. Cloud hospital is now limiting visitors to immediate family members only. Oleson admits it's an unfortunate measure to take right before the holidays.

"Overall, people are understanding of the need to do this. Nobody wants to make anyone else sick, so I think the buy-in from the community is pretty good," says Oleson.

Oleson says hospital staff are also required to wear masks when treating patients with flu-like symptoms.

That's not happening at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, but Infection Control Program Manager Jeanne Pfeiffer says it was discussed. So far, HCMC hasn't had many flu cases. Pfeiffer says the hospital has taken precautions though, closing its pediatric unit to children visitors. "If a sibling is in the hospital, it could be that another child would be sick, too -- or not quite as sick but wanting to use the play room. And that's hard for the staff to monitor, so selectively we're closing to kid visitors but letting healthy adults come in," says Pfeiffer.

Flu admissions have also been low at Region's Hospital in St. Paul. But Noe Mateo, medical director for infection control, says he is hearing of more and more out-patient cases in the suburbs.

"Woodbury, in Como Park, Riverside, Apple Valley. Now, whether that translates into patients coming into the emergency room here, I'm not aware of," says Mateo. "We haven't seen an upswing in the number of patients being admitted to the hospital with influenza just yet."

Mateo says he thinks the influenza season hasn't peaked in the Twin Cities. Kris Ehresman with the Minnesota Department of Health agrees.

"The Twin Cities has not been the focus of activity necessarily, so it may be that that's the next to come," says Ehresman.

The current flu outbreak is being called an epidemic. So far this year, 42 children have died of the flu in the United States.

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