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Influenza widespread throughout Minnesota

DULUTH, Minn. - Just in time for Christmas, influenza has reached widespread levels in Minnesota, the state Department of Health reported on Thursday.

"We are now at widespread activity across the state," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases for the Minnesota Department of Health. That's far ahead of the spread of flu in the state at this time last year and the year before.

"We've seen a real increase in hospitalizations reported and in schools that are reporting outbreaks," Ehresmann said.

One of the schools was in Itasca County, meaning at least 5 percent of students were out with flu or flu-like symptoms, Ehresmann said. It doesn't mean the school closed because of the illness. A Catholic school in St. Cloud did cancel classes on Thursday and today because of large numbers of student being out sick, the Associated Press reported.

Statewide, 47 schools and six long-term care facilities had flu outbreaks within the past week, the health department said.

A total of 165 Minnesotans have been hospitalized so far this season with the flu, the health department reported, and 65 of those occurred just within the past week. Also, Minnesota recorded its first flu-related death of the season within the past week. The victim was a man in his 60s with underlying health conditions, Ehresmann said. She declined to say where the man lived.

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It usually comes on suddenly. Symptoms may include fever or feeling feverish and experiencing chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people may experience vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults.

The flu season has started early this year, both nationally and in Minnesota, Ehresmann said. The early start means the state probably will experience at least a normal flu season this year, if not worse, she said. But even a normal season will seem bad, she said, because the past two years were mild.

But even in mild seasons, flu can be deadly. The state recorded 33 flu deaths in the 2011-12 season and 70 the year before, Ehresmann said.

If you haven't gotten a flu shot, it's not too late, Ehresmann said. Even a shot administered today would provide partial immunity by Christmas. Other health precautions also can slow the spread of the disease, Ehresmann said. They include good hand-washing, a healthy diet, plenty of sleep and good respiratory hygiene, i.e., covering your cough.