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Flu season hits Winona hard (01/13/2013)
By Emily Buss

57 diagnosed cases in Winona

Excessive coughing, raging fevers, sore throats, and severe aches that last for days are signs that flu season is here. A large number of people in the Winona area are suffering from either flu-like symptoms, or the flu itself. Winona Health is just one of the many health systems across the state scrambling to deal with the latest outbreak of an especially deadly strain of the influenza virus.

For the last two weeks, the Winona Health system recorded an increased number of patients complaining of flu-like symptoms and 57 confirmed cases of influenza. As health officials across the country report, the season has yet to hit its peak. Winona Health Chief Nursing Officer Sara Gabrick said the latest outbreak is comparable to the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

“We were trying to tally up the number of patients we have encountered in the last two weeks, but it’s impossible,” Gabrick said. “It’s just everywhere. It’s in every one of our clinics and the number grows exponentially each day.”

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) said the state-wide infestation of the virus has officials concerned. On Friday, the MDH declared the state is in the midst of a severe flu season. However, as unusually fast-spreading as this season is, Gabrick said the increased number of influenza cases was not unexpected.

Something the Winona Health system did not anticipate quite this early was how fast the supply of vaccinations depleted. Earlier this week, Winona Health clinics reported not having an adequate number of influenza vaccinations available, but have since replenished their supply.

“The thing is, with the influenza vaccination, we often run out of the testing kits,” Gabrick said. “We just get inundated with patients, and so does everyone else. Everyone is ordering the kits and the vaccines, and it gets backlogged a little bit.”

Of those coming to urgent care facilities, Gabrick said only about one-third are actually being tested for influenza. But the number of positive tests is not a good way to measure the actual number of influenza cases in the area, she said, because there is a fine line between having influenza-like symptoms and having influenza.

“We have had a lot of people coming in with colds, coughing, sneezing, aching bodies, overall fatigue, those kinds of symptoms, and, it’s hard to diagnose each patient with influenza,” Gabrick said.

How to tell if you have the flu

According to the Mayo Clinic, the key difference between the common cold—which may not feel so

common—and influenza is intensity of respiratory stress. Colds are often associated with mild respiratory troubles lasting for a few days, while influenza is most often associated with severe, painful respiratory stress that lasts for weeks.

Gabrick said patients with the latest strain of influenza are also showing early signs of pneumonia, a lung infection that has killed at least one teenager in St. Paul.

With more than 1,100 people hospitalized across the state, and now 27 dead in Minnesota, most hospitals, including the Winona Health, Gundersen Lutheran, and Mayo Clinic health systems, have implemented visitor restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of this recent outbreak of influenza. Hospital visits to all health systems, excluding urgent care needs, are strictly limited to immediate family members only, and anyone exhibiting illness will not be admitted. Everyone entering these establishments must wear protective masks and are asked to reconsider the visit.

Within the Winona Health system, volunteer services for all senior facilities were halted until further notice, and all junior and college volunteer assignments were cancelled until the influenza outbreak subsides.

“I think it’s important to remind those who are not sick to do everything they can to stay healthy,” Gabrick said. “Keep a good, balanced diet, exercise when you can, get enough rest and, most importantly, get the flu shot.”

Influenza vaccinations are available at all Winona Health clinics in Winona, Rushford, and Lewiston, as well as at Goltz Pharmacy, and the pharmacies at Target, Walgreens, and Shopko.

Tips to avoid and combat the flu

• Get vaccinated.

• Get plenty of rest.

• Drink light fluids such as water, juice, broth, decaffeinated tea, or sports drinks with electrolytes.

• Open the shades and let in the light; sunlight is not a suitable environment for the influenza virus.

• Always wash and sanitize your hands. 


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