Posted at: 01/10/2013 2:40 PM
Updated at: 01/10/2013 10:22 PM
Eyewitness News has learned that six of the 27 flu-related deaths in Minnesota occurred in Duluth.
On Thursday, Essentia-Health St. Mary's Medical Center's spokesperson Kim Kaiser said the hospital has had five flu-related deaths at Duluth Essentia facilities in the last two weeks.
"Flu was not the cause of death, however, in all of the cases," Kaiser wrote in an email. "But all of the patients did test positive for the flu."
St. Luke's Hospital spokesperson Louise Ernewein said one person has died of the influenza virus at St. Luke's in Duluth.
On Thursday, Minnesota Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger called it the state's most severe flu outbreak in several years. It was confirmed that 23 more deaths were related to the flu, raising the season total to 27.
More than 1,100 people have been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms statewide this season, the Minnesota Department of Health said in a weekly update, and the commissioner said it's putting stress on the health care system.
Several hospitals have restricted visitors in an attempt to protect patients and staff. Twenty-three of the state's deaths and 62 percent of the hospitalizations have been in people 65 and older, the department said.
"If you have not received your flu shot it is not too late, but the sooner the better," Ehlinger told reporters. People who are sick with flu symptoms should stay home from work or school to help blunt the outbreak, he said.
Flu activity is hitting hard around the U.S, with most states classifying it as widespread.
Kris Ehresmann, the department's infectious disease director, said in an interview that Minnesota's last couple flu seasons were "very, very mild," while this one is "very robust and very busy."
She said she didn't want to downplay what's happening now, but stressed that this is what a flu season often looks like.
Department data show that Minnesota recorded 67 flu-related deaths and more than 1,800 hospitalizations during the 2009-2010 season, 70 deaths and more than 970 hospitalizations in the 2010-2011 season, and 33 deaths and more than 550 hospitalizations in the 2011-2012 season.
"All of our indicators are that this is a very, very busy and bad season, but it's important to keep in perspective that this is what influenza is," Ehresmann said.
(Copyright 2012 WDIO-TV, LLC. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)