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Flu outbreaks spike in Minnesota schools

Star Tribune - 12/19/2019

School outbreaks of flu-like illness surged to 60 last week across Minnesota as a B strain of influenza continued to spread statewide and take a toll on children.

The number represented a nearly fivefold increase from the 14 outbreaks reported by schools in the first week of December, according to the latest influenza tracking by the Minnesota Department of Health.

"We use a threshold of 5% absenteeism, and we're seeing much higher levels than that," said Kris Ehresmann, director of the state Health Department's infectious disease division.

Some schools are missing as many as one fifth of their students.

Health officials said the upcoming holiday break is arriving at a good time in some respects because it could disrupt the growth in school outbreaks, but it also means that sick children might spread germs as they visit friends and relatives.

The number of school outbreaks -- which are reported when flu-like illness causes more than 5% of students to be absent, or three or more students to be missing from the same elementary school classroom -- contrasts sharply with the absence of any outbreaks last week in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

Children also represented a higher-than-usual share of the 262 flu-related hospitalizations reported so far this season. Six flu-related deaths have been reported as well, though none involved children.

Testing data continued to show the unusual early-season emergence of a B strain of influenza. Normally, A strains emerge first in the winter and then B strains come later. The atypical pattern could explain the early outbreaks among schools, because B strains have historically spread among children.

While flu seasons with lots of B influenza infections tend to be milder, health officials said any flu infections should be taken seriously. Symptoms typically involve fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and fatigue.

Vaccine remains widely available and includes protection against both A and B strains.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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