Hospitals struggle to keep pace as flu outbreak peaks

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The last two weeks have seen an explosion of influenza cases in Minnesota and even one death related to the outbreak, leading experts to warn that this year could be among the worst in recent memory when it comes to the illness.

The Minnesota Department of Health now officially categorizes the outbreak as as "widespread," with more than 1,765 hospitalizations over the last 12 weeks--more than 10 times the amount from last year. A rash of cases following the holidays is normal, though the last few years have been relatively mild compared to this year's spike. 2014 represents the worst flu season in the past decade with 4,138 total cases.

"Our healthcare system has been stressed even here in Minnesota trying to find room for all these people," MDH infectious disease Dr. Greg Siwek said. "We're maxed out."

So far 43 schools and 55 long-term care facilities in the state have reported outbreaks, though epidemiologists note those numbers only reflect the cases that were bad enough to force a clinic or hospital visit--meaning thousands more cases are likely going uncounted. 

Adding more stress to the system is a shortage of IV bags due to crippled factories in hurricane-ridden Puerto Rico, where most of the United States' domestic production lies. Public health officials here in Minnesota are monitoring the situation closely, conserving intravenous fluid whenever possible and substituting treatment methods where necessary.

The prevalent strain circulating the state is classified as influenza A (H3N2), and is associated with more severe cases requiring hospitalization and death among seniors and young children than other strains. 

In light of this, officials urge Minnesotans to get vaccinated as flu season reaches its peak over the next few weeks. It's never too late, they say, as hospitals prepare to see flu cases well into the month of May.

“Now is the time to get your flu vaccine if you have not already,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the Minnesota Department of Health. “Even otherwise-healthy people can become very sick from flu, and we still have a lot of flu season left."