North Dakota's flu season four times worse than at this time last year; Altru launches hotline

2018-01-30 | Grand Forks Herald

Jan. 30--This season's flu is on pace to hit four times as many people it did last year, with health officials hoping it will peak soon.

But national experts say this year could be the country's worst in nearly a decade, according to the Washington Post.

North Dakota reported 3,339 cases of flu this season as of Jan. 20, compared to the nearly 800 cases counted at that time last year, according to the most recent numbers issued Thursday by the state Department of Health. It also reported 155 hospitalizations and 12 deaths, all of which were among adults over age 65.

The department reported a total count of 7,507 cases last season, which started in October 2016 and extended into May.

This year's flu season has caused widespread activity across all states in the U.S., save Hawaii, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of patients who have visited Altru Health Systems with flu-like symptoms has increased by 10 to 15 percent compared to normal, nurse practitioner Corey Jensen said.

It's one of the reasons why the Grand Forks hospital launched a hotline dedicated to answering questions about flu-like symptoms. Altru started accepting calls Monday via the phone number (701) 780-6FLU, or (701) 780-6358. Dozens of people have called into the Altru hotline, according to the hospital.

"With the increase in the number of patients with symptoms, we can make it more convenient for our patients to have access to a health care provider," Jensen said.

It's the first year Altru has had a phone line dedicated exclusively to the viral infection. The hotline allows callers to ask for advice about the flu, including if their symptoms warrant a trip to a medical examiner.

Opinions seem to be mixed on how bad the flu season will be this year. With 37 child deaths reported across the U.S., CDC officials believe the pediatric death count could approach, if not exceed, the 148 deaths reported during the especially severe flu season of 2014-15, according to the Post.

It's too early to tell how if North Dakota is on track to see its worst flu season in years, said Jill Baber, influenza and syndromic surveillance coordinator for the state Department of Health. She said she is not sure if the state will exceed the 2014-15 season, which resulted in more than 6,400 confirmed cases, 275 hospitalizations and 54 deaths.

"It is certainly turning out to be a bad season," she said.

Every county except Billings County has been hit with the flu to some extent, with the most cases reported in Cass County at 751. Grand Forks County ranked seventh in the state with 135 cases.

In Minnesota, more than 2,900 people have been hospitalized as of Jan. 20, according to the latest report from the Minnesota Department of Health. That's less than the total number of hospitalizations from last season, which saw 3,738 patients. The Minnesota Health Department reported one pediatric flu-related death this season.

Trends suggest weekly hospitalization numbers in Minnesota are declining, but North Dakota saw its biggest week for laboratory-identified cases in the week ending Jan. 20, with officials confirming almost 800 cases.

Jensen noted the importance of taking measures to stay healthy, staying home if a person is sick and getting the flu shot, which still is available to those who are eligible.

Top 10 counties with most confirmed flu cases in ND

Cass--751

Burleigh--439

Stark--249

Ward--298

Williams--207

Morton--186

Grand Forks--135

Pembina--81

Rolette--73

Stutsman--72

Source: North Dakota Department of Health