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Fighting the flu: This year's influenza outbreak lingers on

Restrictions for visitors at the Douglas County Hospital remain in place because of continued influenza cases. (File photo)

A vicious influenza outbreak continues to sweep across Douglas County, impacting school attendance, putting people in the hospital and triggering reminders of how to keep the virus from spreading.

This year's influenza outbreak is so widespread that the Douglas County Hospital enacted visitor restrictions on Jan. 2 and the precautions are still in place (see related story).

From Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 34 percent of patients who were tested for influenza at Douglas County Hospital and Alexandria Clinic had the virus, according to Infection Control Officer Emma Von Feldon.

Of the 34 percent, 95 percent tested positive for influenza A and 5 percent for influenza B, which can cause outbreaks of seasonal flu but occurs less frequently than outbreaks of influenza A.

Doreen Hanson, a registered nurse with Horizon Public Health, said that as of last week, 3,467 people statewide have been hospitalized because of the flu. That's almost as many as the 3,748 flu hospitalizations that were recorded all of last year. The year before that, only 1,541 people were hospitalized.

Still, it's not as bad as the outbreaks in 2014 and 2015 when more than 4,000 were in the hospital, Hanson said.

"You just never know what you're going to get," said Hanson. "This year's influenza A is harder on older people and kids under 2. They can't fight it as well and they end up in the hospital."

Flu vaccines are never a sure-fire way to stop the flu. Initial reports said the vaccine was about 10 percent effective this year, but the Centers for Disease Control has since adjusted the rate to about 30 percent. This could still change depending on what happens in the next couple of weeks, Hanson said.

"It's never 100 percent effective, but we don't have anything else," Hanson said. "And if the majority of people have their flu shots, there wouldn't be as much of it circulating around."

Unlike some areas, the vaccine is still in plentiful supply in Douglas County, according to Hanson.

"We will have flu vaccine on hand until June," she said. "The peak time is usually in February, but we have seen it earlier and later. Locally, we're OK. The clinics and pharmacies still have the vaccine."

Flu or cold?

How do you know if you have the flu and not a cold?

"The big thing with a cold is that it is a nagging illness that comes on slowly," she said. "You get a cough, a sore throat but you don't feel that awful. With influenza, you wake up sick as a dog, or you go to work feeling OK, but by the afternoon, you are really sick."

Common symptoms of the flu are fever, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, body aches and exhaustion, Hanson said. Many people end up throwing up because of all the coughing. Children and older adults may also become dehydrated.

If you think you have influenza, you should call your clinic right away so you can begin to take antiviral medications, Hanson advised.

"If you are struggling to breathe you need to go to the hospital," she said. "If you think you have influenza, call your clinic right away but don't go right in — call first."

She also recommended flu victims to wear a mask to prevent coughs from spreading the virus to others in the home.

Unfortunately, flu symptoms can hang on. "It's not unusual to have it for two weeks," she said. With every flu season, the advice remains the same: Get vaccinated, stay home if you are sick, cover your coughs, wash your hands often, stay hydrated, rest and use the bacterial wipes at stores and public places if they are available.

Classrooms impacted

Alexandria School District works with the Minnesota Department of Health in tracking illnesses.

This year, four schools hit the requirement for notifying the health department because they reached a threshold of having 5 percent of their enrollment absent from school after parents called to say their children had influenza or influenza-like illnesses, according to Melissa Bright, school nurse for the district.

Last year, three elementary schools hit the threshold — Lincoln, Miltona and Voyager. This year, Lincoln, Voyager, Woodland and Garfield made the list.

Woodland, for instance, had 26 students out sick from an enrollment of 460 — or 5.6 percent of the students.

"In the last week and a half, several kids have been out sick," Bright said Wednesday. "Hopefully, we are seeing a decline. Voyager hit a peak last week and the students out at Woodland is now on a decline."

The district works hard to keep families informed about influenza and other illnesses through mailings and a school newsletter, Bright said.

"The biggest thing is handwashing," she said. "That will at least slow the spread. And if their children are sick, families should keep them home — not just give them Ibuprofen and send them to school."

When to send kids home?

Alexandria School district's guidelines about when students will be sent home because of illness:

• Fever — 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the student will be sent home and should remain home 24 hours fever free without fever reducing medications.

• Diarrhea — the student can return to school 24 hours after the last time of diarrhea.

• Vomiting — can return to school 24 hours after the last time of vomiting.

• Runny nose — students who cannot control their secretions and/or have green/ yellowish-brown secretions need to remain home until symptoms improve.

• Coughing — excessive coughing contributing to the inability of the student to participate in class work or is disruptive to other students.

• If symptoms worsen or persist, see your healthcare provider to be evaluated. The flu can be serious for children causing them to miss school, activities or even be hospitalized.

Bright also shared these tips for staying healthy:

• Frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent and combat the spread of germs.

• Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.

• If your child has any signs and symptoms of illness, please keep them home.

• Cover coughs and sneezes with a disposable tissue or use an elbow or arm if no tissue is available.

• Do not share drinks, food, or unwashed utensils.

• Get plenty of rest, eat healthy foods, and drink lots of water and healthy drinks.

• Avoid people that are sick and stay home when you are sick.

• Disinfect surfaces that are prone to germs (ex: phones, keyboards, doorknobs, toothbrushes).

Hospital restrictions

Douglas County Hospital continues to see an increased number of influenza cases, and as a precautionary measure for patients and staff, visitor restrictions are still in effect.

The restrictions were put in place Jan. 2 and will remain remain in effect until further notice, according to Infection Control Officer Emma Von Feldon, registered nurse.

Only immediate family members should visit patients only if it is necessary.

Visitors should be free from any flu-like symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat or diarrhea for a minimum of 24 hours before visiting patients, Von Feldon said.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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