Flu: ‘It’s important to keep this in perspective’

If you’re in the news business, the quote today from Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger makes a lousy lede: “We are clearly at a high level of influenza activity in the state.But it’s important to keep this year in perspective: What is occurring has happened before. This is what influenza looks like, this is what it can do. ”

A far more compelling lede is the one you’ll probably hear and see over the next day or so: 23 people are dead from flu-related causes this week alone.

And that is, of course, terrible. But is it notable? The recitation of numbers doesn’t tell us anything without context. Are 23 deaths unusual, compared to any other season? Of the 23 who passed away, what percentage had other illnesses, such as asthma or lung disease?

Consider this graphic from the Minnesota Department of Health released today:


There appear to be three spikes to every outbreak. We’re on #2 now.

Clearly it’s a bad year for the flu, but — and this is another quote from Dr. Ehlinger — we’ve been here before. The number of cases has reached this high, just not this early in the year. Does that mean it’ll be this high all year or might we reach the peak earlier too?

The answers to those questions provide more details than gripping headlines. So hear are some of the answers from the MDH’s press release today:

The demographics of Minnesota’s hospitalized cases and deaths are what we expect with seasonal influenza, said Commissioner Ehlinger. “Of the 1,121 hospitalized persons, 62 percent of the cases are over 65 years of age and 15 percent are under 25 years of age. This is in contrast to the 2009 pandemic when 12 percent of hospitalizations were in individuals 65 and older and 61 percent were in those under age 25 years. Twenty-three of the 27 influenza deaths this year are in people 65 years and older. Because so many of the serious cases are occurring in long-term care residents, Ehlinger stressed that it’s very important for long-term care facilities to make sure that all their staff are vaccinated against influenza to help prevent the spread of flu to vulnerable residents. Also, MDH has advised facilities to follow CDC guidelines to limit transmission of the virus, such as restricting visitors, particularly anyone who is ill.

The rapid increase in influenza cases is creating significant challenges for health care partners around the state, Ehlinger said. However, those areas hardest hit with flu are implementing at least portions of their plans developed for pandemic influenza. Hospitals, clinics and long-term-care facilities within each region are working together to coordinate use of resources such as beds, supplies, and medicines.

And, for the record, this is what the death toll in previous flu outbreaks has been:

2009-2010: 67

2010-2011: 70

2011-2012: 33

Get a flu shot, cover your mouth, and — as we discussed yesterday — stay home when you get sick. If you need a note for the boss, let me know. Or just use this one:

Dear _________________________:

You hired ______________________ because you felt he/she was smart enough to make your company a better place. Today, he/she is proving it by staying home from your office so as not to spread the flu. Get over it.

I know your workplace is important to you, but please let’s take a step back here and get real. It’s just a business and if it requires people to get off their deathbed to prop it up, really, how great a business is it in the first place?

If it takes another 24 hours to get some project done, or someone had to fill in — perhaps you? — to get by without ______________, then that’s the way life works. Your product is good, but the world can wait another 24 hours or so from some project that, let’s face it, was going to end up in some committee for weeks anyway before it could be agreed upon who was going to take credit for it; you and I both know it wasn’t going to be ____________ who got the credit.

You didn’t worry much when you laid off half the staff a few years ago, so what are you worried about now?

Besides, managing crises is what a manager is supposed to do. It’s why you’ve got the job you’ve got.



P.S. Go wash your hands.

  • Robert Moffitt

    Thanks for coming back to this topic, Bob. Here’s what some flu shot critics don’t understand about influenza.

    1) That flu shot is not just to protect you. It also helps to protect the older people in your circle: parents, grandparents, favorite uncle or aunt, you name it. The flu might just make you very ill, but there is an even higher risk for them.

    2) The risk to the very young is greater, too. And poeple with lung diseases — like me.

    3) As a particularly crafty virus that can live in many different animals (including us), mutate quickly, and “jump species” from bird virus to pig virus to human virus, the flu is a tough bug to stop. Every year, the flu is a little different — that’s why you need a shot every year. Good news: there is real progress on work to develop a “universal vaccine” that can be used any year. Wish the scientists luck.

    If you saw last season’s “Downton Abbey,” you’ll know that as WW I was ending, a terrible flu pandemic swept the world. It killed normally healthy people within days. The fact that it could happen again has given public health officials nightmares ever since.

  • vjacobsen


    +one million

    Thank you for writing a sane comment. I’m kind of tired of the science naysayers.

  • David G

    I’d love to see more years on that chart. It does suggest to me that an earlier peak may also mean a longer peak, but we really need more years to see if that holds up.

    Something else that might be worrisome: with this season’s second spike, we reached the maximum levels that the other two seasons on the chart took three spikes to reach.

    So, is this level some kind of maximum level for an outbreak, or could a third spike send it even higher?

  • Bethjock

    I love the note! Thanks for the perspective.