RSV, flu, COVID cause for caution ahead of holidays, Minnesota officials say
Just 20% of Minnesotans are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccine, according to MDH estimates.
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Health is urging vaccinations and other precautions against infection ahead of the holidays as influenza and other respiratory viruses test health care resources.
Minnesota has managed to avoid the autumn and winter surges of COVID-19 it saw in 2020 and 2021, but cases and hospitalizations have remained at a stubborn plateau for months, state epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield told reporters in a press briefing Tuesday, Dec. 13.
Adding to the concern? Just 20% of Minnesotans are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccine, according to MDH estimates. While Lynfield said Minnesota is outperforming the rest of the U.S. on that metric, it’s still cause for concern. Low rates of bivalent vaccine boosters combined with the return of high rates of influenza and unusually large numbers of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections have prompted calls for caution ahead of family gatherings this month.
“Vaccination for COVID and for influenza are easy ways we can do our part to help limit the strain on the health care system,” said Lynfield. “But the key is to do it now in order to give time for immunity to build before the holidays are in full swing.”
After being seemingly absent for the past two years, flu season has returned. There have been more than 2,100 hospitalizations reported to MDH, twice the number seen in the last two winters. Additionally, there have been 900 outbreaks of influenza-like illness in schools and 40 outbreaks in nursing homes.
As of Tuesday, there have been 40 deaths, Lynfield said. MDH said case numbers appear to be stabilizing, but with multiple strains in circulation, there could be other waves. Those future waves could be tempered if more people seek out the vaccine, which officials said is widely available and apparently effective against flu strains circulating this year.
Beyond vaccinations, MDH issued the standard advice for any bad flu season: Stay home if you are sick, wash your hands, cover your cough, limit time in crowded indoor settings and consider wearing a mask.
Lynfield said it may be especially important to seek vaccination as antiviral medications for influenza like Tamiflu have been in short supply. It’s particularly important for the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions to get vaccinated, she said.
For those who become ill, MDH encourages those vulnerable to severe COVID, such as the elderly or those with preexisting conditions to reach out to their health providers, as antivirals are most effective in early illness.
Further complicating the seasonal illness picture this winter is the unusual surge in RSV cases across the U.S. The virus causes a respiratory illness that is particularly dangerous to children and the elderly, and in Minnesota has led to many hospitalizations.
There have been about 1,500 hospitalizations for RSV this fall in Minnesota in an early and severe season of infections. Hospitalizations peaked at around 200, according to MDH, though as of Tuesday they sat at around 120. In a typical year, Minnesota sees around 60 or 70 hospitalizations.
While flu and RSV cases appear to be on the decline, it’s too early to say whether the state has cleared the worst of things yet, said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who is retiring in January after leading Minnesota’s response to COVID-19.
“We have in past seen these kinds of lulls or dips only to see a further resurgence so we definitely do not think we’re easily past the point of maximum pressure yet,” Malcolm said.