MDH has advice for parents as number of school-related flu outbreaks grows

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There have been more than 500 school flu outbreaks in the last six weeks. Nearly half of those outbreaks were reported last week.

The first school outbreak was reported during the first week of October, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. MDH continued to get reports throughout the month.

Cases took off in November when there were 97 new school outbreaks during the first week. The number of outbreaks grew to 195 the following week and then 240 new outbreaks last week.

“This is earlier than we usually see influenza activity at quite this level,” said Melissa McMahon, a senior epidemiologist with MDH. “I think personally my main concern is what we are going to see for the rest of the season?”

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There have been a total of 564 school flu outbreaks since the beginning of October. This spike has surpassed early spikes recorded in the last five years.

It’s still too soon to tell whether the flu is peaking early this year or whether cases will remain high through the winter, according to McMahon.

“We’re hoping this might be leading to an early peak and then we’ll have less influenza activity in the spring months but it remains to be seen,” she said.

Saint Paul Public Schools Hidden River Middle School is among the latest to be hit with a flu outbreak. The district has reported cases at several schools over the last few weeks.

“We’re definitely seeing about double of what we normally have out for students at this time of year,” said Mary Langworthy, the SPPS director of health and wellness. “I’ve heard from a number of people that as much as half of a class is out at a time which is quite unusual to have that many kids gone.”

The district is dealing with RSV, pneumonia and COVID cases as well.

“I think what’s different is we’re having students out multiple days so two to five absences,” said Langworthy. “It seems that people are starting with one illness maybe recover or mostly recover and then end up with another type of illness, going from maybe influenza to maybe COVID with that compromised immune system.”

The increase in illnesses is affecting district staff as well.

“They might have been sick and out for a few days and now their children are out and now they’re needing to provide care for them at home — it’s kind of a double impact,” said Langworthy.

She explained they are keeping a close eye on students and send them to the health office for an evaluation if they exhibit any symptoms.

The flu spreads through infected droplets and the virus can live on surfaces, according the McMahon. It can spread if an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or sings around another person who breathes in those droplets. People can also become infected by touching infected surfaces and then their mouth, nose or eyes.

“Wash your hands thoroughly and often, stay home when you’re sick, cover your coughs and sneezes and make sure you get your influenza shot and any others like COVID,” said McMahon. “Nobody wants to miss a holiday but if you are feeling ill that really is the safest course of action for you and the rest of your family, to maybe reschedule or take a break from the holiday if you’re not feeling well.”