Minnesota flu season is off to a mild start -- but that could change

Is this just what the flu wants us to think?

Is this just what the flu wants us to think? Getty Images/iStockphoto

Like the lull in a good horror movie scene, Minnesota’s flu season this year has been quiet.

Too quiet.

So far in the 2018-19 flu season (which runs October to May), our state has seen 116 hospitalizations and four deaths. If that seems like a lot, cast your mind back to last year, when we logged more than 6,400 hospitalizations and 435 deaths in all. In 2018, the week ending in Dec. 29, which is usually a hotbed for post-holiday gathering sickness, saw only 24 hospitalizations. Last year, around the same time, we saw more than 500.

This, Minnesota Department of Health Epidemiologist Melissa McMahon says, is supposed to be “the height of activity” for our viral foe. And the dominant strain this year looks like our old nemesis from the 2009 pandemic: an Influenza A variety known as H1N1 or “Swine Flu.”

So, what’s going on? Is the flu flaking on us this year?

“The short answer would be ‘no clue,’” McMahon says. It’s too early to say why we’re having a lucky flu season so far. It could be, she says, that getting walloped the last two years in a row has made us a little smarter about getting vaccinated and washing our hands, but we don’t yet have the numbers to confirm that.

And flu season isn’t over yet. If this is a horror movie, we could have a pretty nasty jump scare headed our way: In the past few weeks, we’ve had a slight uptick in flu cases around the metro area and across southern Minnesota. It’s not that unusual, McMahon says, for a flu season to peak a little later than expected.

“Every flu season is different,” but “it almost always becomes widespread at some point,” Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson Doug Schultz told the Dickinson Press.

Now is not the time to panic. We may not be in for another walloping at all, or maybe we’re in for a smaller one than the last two years. H1N1, despite its nasty reputation from 2009, actually makes for a somewhat milder flu season than, say, H3N2 -- a different strain of respiratory flu that hits harder and kills more people on average.

McMahon’s opinion is that we’re going to be okay. Relatively.

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything like last year and the year before that,” she says.

But remember -- especially when you ask yourself whether it’s too late to get vaccinated (it’s not!) -- the movie isn’t over. There’s plenty of time for things to get a lot hairier.