Six flu deaths reported in DuluthSix people have died of flu-related illnesses so far this season at Duluth hospitals, representatives said Thursday.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Six people have died of flu-related illnesses so far this season at Duluth hospitals, representatives said Thursday.
Reports of the Duluth deaths occurred on the same day the state Department of Health reported a total of 27 deaths statewide as of Saturday. Of those, 23 deaths occurred just in the week that ended on Saturday, according to the Health Department’s weekly report.
In Duluth, five deaths have occurred at Essentia Health’s two hospitals in Duluth, Essentia infectious disease specialist Dr. Timothy Burke said. The other death was at St. Luke’s hospital, spokeswoman Louise Ernewein said.
A fast-starting flu season has area health agencies scrambling to keep up with demand for space, flu shots and the testing material that confirms whether a respiratory illness is influenza.
Essentia Health hasn’t had enough intensive care beds to meet demand, Burke said, and it has moved some adults to the pediatric ICU. The health system also has considered delaying elective surgeries but hasn’t yet taken that step, he said.
As of Thursday, 12 patients were hospitalized at Essentia hospitals in the Twin Ports with confirmed flu cases and eight were in the hospital with flu-like illnesses, Burke said.
St. Luke’s hospital had 12 patients in a ward that has been set aside for influenza and others in ICU, a St. Luke’s news release said. St. Luke’s urgent care clinics and emergency departments also were seeing an increase in patients with flu-like symptoms as well as patients with upper-respiratory and throat infections unrelated to flu.
At Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet, six patients have been hospitalized with confirmed cases of influenza so far, and two others have been hospitalized with flu-like illnesses, said Shelly Demers, director of staff education and infection protection.
Burke said this year’s outbreak so far reminds him of the 2009 pandemic. It’s also being compared to the 2003-04 flu season, which featured the same primary flu strain as this year, H3N2. It’s much stronger than last year’s flu season, when only 30 people died statewide.
“It’s a very severe season for seasonal influenza,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state health department’s infectious disease specialist. “But this is what influenza looks like. I think we have been lulled into complacency because we’ve had some very mild seasons.”
So far, 1,121 people have been hospitalized with the flu in Minnesota this season, including 401 last week alone. Outbreaks of the flu were confirmed in 28 long-term care facilities last week, including two in St. Louis County, according to the health department’s weekly report. Statewide, there were five outbreaks in schools, although many schools hadn’t opened after the holiday break by Jan. 5.
The health department doesn’t release names or locations of flu victims, but media have reported on a couple of teenagers who died from influenza complications within the past few weeks. A 17-year-old Texas boy died at a St. Paul hospital on Dec. 30, and a 14-year-old St. Louis Park, Minn., girl died at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis on Tuesday afternoon.
But the flu isn’t especially targeting teenagers, Ehresmann said.
“We’re seeing most of the deaths and hospitalizations in persons that are 65 and older,” she said. “We had two tragic deaths in teenagers this season … but that doesn’t reflect the overall picture of the season.”
In fact, the demographics of this flu season are the opposite of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, state Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said. Of those hospitalized so far this season, 62 percent are 65 years or older, and 15 percent are younger than 25, Ehlinger said in a news release. In 2009, only 12 percent of those hospitalized were 65 and older, and 61 percent were younger than 25.
All five of the victims at Essentia Health Duluth hospitals were elderly, Essentia spokeswoman Kim Kaiser said.
Flu shot demand
The demand for flu vaccinations has surged within the past week to 10 days, Burke said, probably because of a wave of publicity about flu cases. But supplies of the vaccine are plentiful, he said.
The increased demand led Essentia to set up walk-in flu-shot booths today and next Thursday and Friday at the Essentia Health Duluth Clinic First Street Building. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Vaccinations are being given at St. Luke’s clinics and hospitals at a level normally seen in the fall, the St. Luke’s news release said.
Walgreens stores in the Twin Ports have seen increased flu-shot demand over the past month, said Robert Elfinger, a spokesman for the national chain.
There have been sporadic shortages of the rapid test kits hospitals use to confirm flu cases, said Sara Vetter, virology supervisor for the state health department. There’s no overall shortage, Vetter said, “just high volumes and people adjusting their orders.”
Community Memorial Hospital had been short on the kits until a fresh supply arrived on Thursday, Demers said.
Essentia also has gotten additional shipments, Burke said, but is administering it only to those who require hospitalization.
“If you’re in the middle of an outbreak, and you have the typical symptoms of the outbreak, you don’t need a test confirmation,” he said.
Hospitals across the country have announced various restrictions to try to keep flu from being spread to patients, but Duluth hospitals have kept those to a minimum.
At St. Luke’s clinics and hospitals, signs are posted year-round to remind patients or visitors to cover their coughs, wash their hands and wear masks if appropriate, the news release said.
Essentia Health is asking that visitors be limited to patients’ immediate family members, Burke said. People with influenza can be contagious between 12 and 24 hours before having the symptoms, he said.
The hospital is also asking immediate family members with symptoms who must visit, such as when a loved one is dying, to wear masks, he said. And children younger than 12 aren’t being allowed to visit the birthing, neonatal and pediatrics units.
Essentia has a few people in key positions out with the flu, Burke said.
Because of that, and because bad weather was forecast Thursday night into today, Essentia was keeping some employees on overtime shifts, Kaiser said.