Wash your hands, rinse and repeat often: Influenza is now widespread in Minnesota, and across the nation.
For the first time in nearly three decades, most cases reported so far in the country, including Minnesota, are Type B, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Minnesota, the number of Type B cases are followed by Type A, Victoria, and to a lesser extent, H1N1 and Yamagota.
It’s unusual for this time of year for Influenza B/Victoria viruses to predominant, since Type B flu usually shows up later in the flu season, according to the CDC.
Nationally, A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses are the next most common. And A(H3N2) and B/Yamagata viruses are circulating at very low levels.
In Minnesota so far this season, 16 people have died from the flu, with a median age of 80. There haven’t been any pediatric flu deaths in the state yet this season.
Fingers crossed that it stays that way, since Type B flu tends to hit younger people more frequently, and can cause complications, resulting in hospitalization or death, according to the CDC.
Unusually early influenza B/Victoria virus activity in Louisiana over the summer “resulted in illnesses in children that were similar to typical seasonal influenza; however, some illnesses were severe, and one death was reported,” the CDC said in a special report on its website.
The flu started to spike in Minnesota schools in mid December, just before the holiday break, which put an end to the spread of flu in classrooms, said Becker County Public Health Supervisor Kristin Bausman.
“The Christmas break helped,” she said. “It happened at a good time.”
Statewide, doctors are seeing mostly cases of Influenza B, but there is a lot of Influenza A out there too, said Karen Martin, an epidemiologist with the state health department.
“The symptoms are the same and both are covered under the vaccination, that’s the good news,” she said. “Influenza B is more common in school-age kids, but anyone can get sick with it,” she said. It’s possible older people have built up some immunity to Type B flu over the years, she added.
There have been 753 hospitalizations in Minnesota so far this flu season and 16 deaths, none of them under age 18.
There is a long way to go, of course. The worst of the flu season runs through March, and it can tail on into July, Martin said.
But some seasons are worse than others: By this time of the year, deaths had spiked in the 2014-15 flu season, which killed 368 people in Minnesota, including 10 children.
Deaths had also spiked by this time in the 2017-18 flu season, in which 440 people died in Minnesota, including six children.
But last season, in which 95 people died, including one child, flu deaths didn’t spike until March.
That was similar to the 2016-17 flu season, which came later in the winter and killed 273 people, including two children, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Each season varies depending on the type of flu that predominates and other factors, Martin said. The number of hospitalizations in Minnesota are comparatively low so far this flu season, but that’s because Type B flu is more likely to target young people, who have generally strong and healthy immune systems that can handle it.
“We’re right up there with the peaks of previous seasons,” Martin said, “but kids aren’t the ones that are usually sent to hospitals with complications.”
The flu in Minnesota is just starting to hit long-term care facilities harder than it has yet this season, according to the state’s weekly flu report.
The CDC recommends a flu vaccine for everyone 6 months or older as soon as possible. The vaccine takes about two weeks to produce a full immune response, Bausman said, but it provides limited protection right away, and can help lessen the severity of the flu even if it’s not a direct match for that particular strain.
Nationally, the CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 6.4 million flu illnesses, 55,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths from flu.
“Wash your hands, and if you're sick, stay home,” Bausman said. “Keep your kids home if they’re sick to keep from spreading it. And it’s not too late to get vaccinated, there’s still months of the season left.”