With flu season here again, community members and area schools have experienced varying degrees of influenza like illness.
At Wadena-Deer Creek elementary and middle/high schools, there were three confirmed cases total in the week before Christmas break, according to WDC preschool/elementary school nurse Amy Yglesias and WDC middle/high school nurse Leanne Johnson.
“We really haven't been hit like other schools in the area......yet,” Yglesias said in an email on Dec. 27.
There were not large numbers of students out sick before break and on Jan. 2 the elementary school had "about our usual number of kids absent," according to Yglesias.
Both Menahga and Verndale schools were hit hard, according to Sebeka school district nurse Janet Mattson. In Menahga, influenza, strep throat and other illnesses affected the schools, with more confirmed cases of strep throat than influenza in the same period, according to Menahga district nurse Stephanie Ness.
"Menahga Schools reached the (influenza) reportable threshold of 3 students in one classroom a couple of weeks prior to winter break, with numbers of absences remaining above average through the last day of school prior to winter break," Ness said in an email.
With illnesses affecting the schools, Ness said, "We encourage good hand hygiene, adequate fluid intake, a well balanced diet, exercise and plenty of rest at night." The schools also previously had flu shot clinics with Wadena County Public Health available for students and staff. After winter break, illness related absences have become average, according to Ness.
In Verndale, the lower elementary students were most affected, including a kindergarten class normally at 20-25 students with only eight students, according to Verndale school health aide Amber Geis.
“That week right before Christmas break … we really went down on it at the school. To either kids not feeling good or staying home because of the sickness or parents just scared not to send kids to school because they didn’t want their kids to bring it home or get infected with anything,” Geis said.
There were 11 positive cases of influenza B and 36 or more with symptoms, according to Geis. Parents are informed when the flu is affecting the school as well as when to keep their children home. While Geis hopes the schools will have no more influenza, she says, “When flu hits, it hits.”
In Sebeka, the flu hadn’t hit the week of Dec. 16-20, with one confirmed case and a few with symptoms, totalling to a usual number of students absent, according to Mattson.
“We were holding our own. I had sent an email out to our staff saying remember this is flu season, and we really need to be concentrating on encouraging everyone to wash their hands,” Mattson said.
Mattson says handwashing is the best prevention to stop spreading influenza. The custodial staff at Sebeka schools also wash handrails and door handles with disinfectant spray. Staff members are encouraged to give students time to wash their hands before eating and after going to the bathroom.
As school nurses prepare and remind staff, parents and students about the flu season, they also know it is a matter of when the flu will affect the school. Throughout the year, school nurses report influenza outbreaks to the Minnesota Department of Health, at least one per year, according to Mattson. The Health Department requires reporting when 5% of the school’s enrollment is absent or sent home with influenza-like illness. An additional requirement for elementary schools is when three or more students from one classroom are absent or sent home with influenza-like illness.
“We are never not affected but some years it has been … a low boil, maybe one kid in a classroom,” Mattson said. “I don’t think this year is going to be, I think we’re going to be hit hard.”
Within the Wadena region as a whole, the flu season began with “positive flu tests and an increase of patients presenting with influenza like illnesses just after Thanksgiving,” according to Tri-County Health Care infection preventionist Cheryl Houselog. Houselog also said there have been hospitalizations of adults and children at Tri-County.
“Statewide, historical, comparison data from the past 5 years shows that we are seeing a higher than average number of school outbreaks and a higher than average percentage of persons presenting to outpatient clinics with influenza or influenza like illnesses,” Houselog said in an email.
The hospital prepares for the flu season by recommending staff and community members to receive the influenza vaccination, wash their hands often and cover their mouths when coughing, according to Houselog. In October and November, Tri-County area clinics also had immunization clinics.
At Wadena County Public Health, the flu vaccine is also offered and encouraged, the flu is tracked weekly based on reports from the Minnesota Department of Health and any needed response is worked on with the district epidemiologist, according to Public Health director Cindy Pederson. There were also flu shot Fridays in October and November as well as immunization clinics in August for free and reduced vaccines, according to Facebook posts. Houselog and Pederson say the flu vaccine is still available.
In Wadena County, there have been three influenza-like illness outbreaks in schools and zero in long-term care facilities for the season through Dec. 28, according to information from the Minnesota Department of Health noted by Pederson.
As the flu season progressed, Tri-County started visitor restrictions on Dec. 17, according to a Facebook post.
“We ask that those who are experiencing flu like symptoms or who are not immunized to refrain from visiting hospitalized patients. We posted these restrictions mid-December and will keep them in place until we see a significant and sustained reduction of influenza cases,” Houselog said in an email.
Within the state of Minnesota, there is widespread influenza activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines widespread as, “Outbreaks of influenza or increases in ILI cases and recent laboratory-confirmed influenza in at least half the regions of the state with recent laboratory evidence of influenza in the state,” according to Pederson.
The early start of the flu season in Minnesota was shared about by Tri-County Health Care on Sept. 24, along with the symptoms of a high fever, muscle aches, an upper respiratory infection and fatigue that come on suddenly, according to a Facebook post.
The trends in Minnesota are similar to those across the United States, including influenza being geographically widespread and having more cases of influenza B, according to a CDC surveillance report. For the week ending on Dec. 28, 34 states have high flu activity, according to the CDC.
“The 2019-2020 season is underway; all regions of the country are seeing elevated levels of flu-like illness,” according to the CDC report for the week ending on Dec. 21.
For the rest of the flu season, Houselog and Pederson say the activity will continue.
“As always, influenza is unpredictable. Based on past experience, we will see elevated activity for the next 10-12 weeks,” Houselog said in an email.