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North Dakota flu cases soar to over 25 times the number reported a year ago

Last flu season, North Dakota had a total of only 245 flu cases, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. Although the end of this flu season is still months away, the state has already seen 6,638 cases — more than 25 times the number North Dakota reported a year ago.

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Boxes hold containers of the influenza virus vaccine Fluzone.
Bob King / Forum News Service file photo

BISMARCK — The prevalence of influenza in North Dakota is spiking, and the number of people who tested positive last week has increased by more than three-fold in comparison to last month, according to the state health department.

Although each flu season is unpredictable, the substantial number of people testing positive for the flu is high for this time of year compared to a normal flu season.

A typical flu season runs from October through May, and last season was unusually mild largely due to COVID-19 mitigation strategies, such as social distancing and mask-wearing, which also curbed the spread of flu.

Last flu season, North Dakota had a total of only 245 flu cases, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. Although the end of this flu season is still months away, the state has already seen 6,638 cases — more than 25 times the number North Dakota reported a year ago.

"Our influenza cases have gone up like crazy, really potentially faster than we would normally see," said Jennifer Galbraith, vaccine manager with the Department of Health. "Things are definitely trending upward and going quickly."

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The surge in flu cases coincides with rising COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant. Hospitalizations due to the flu increased last week, putting more pressure on North Dakota hospitals that were already dealing with staffing and resource shortages.

COVID-19 and flu symptoms are similar, and a person can contract both infections at the same time. Throughout this flu season, nearly 70 North Dakotans have tested positive for both COVID-19 and influenza simultaneously, according to the Department of Health. This co-infection has been dubbed "flurona," by some news sources.

"We don't typically have two viral infections causing hospitalizations at the same time, at least in these numbers, so really any influenza cases are significant," Galbraith said.

During the week of Jan. 2, the latest week for which Department of Health data is available, North Dakota reported over 1,100 flu cases. In the weeks prior, the state had nearly 2,000 new flu cases per week.

North Dakota's spike in cases in the last few weeks has come earlier than usual, Galbraith said, as a spike this size usually occurs at the end of January or start of February.

This season, fewer North Dakotans have received flu shots compared to previous years, which is likely contributing to the state's high case count, Galbraith said. The Department of Health previously told The Forum COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy may be supplementing reluctance to get the flu shot.

Everyone 6 months and older should receive a flu shot each year, and it's still not too late to get inoculated, health officials say.

Vaccinations are especially lagging among North Dakotans 18 years old and younger, with about 30% of this age group inoculated. In comparison, about 46% of Americans 6 months old through 17 years old had received the flu vaccine nationwide as of Dec. 25, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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About 15,000 fewer adolescents in North Dakota have been inoculated this flu season compared to last, Galbraith said. Nearly half of North Dakota's flu cases this season have occurred in adolescents under 20 years old, according to the Department of Health.

In the past month, flu hospitalizations have also increased. North Dakota saw an additional 35 flu hospitalizations during the week of Jan. 2, bringing the state's overall flu hospitalization total for this season to 133 so far.

North Dakota has marked eight flu deaths this season.

The best way to prevent the flu is to get the vaccine, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. Washing hands and staying home when ill can also help curb the spread of flu.

Find out more information about the flu at www.health.nd.gov/flu.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

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