DULUTH, Minn. — The onset of influenza was sudden, so much so that the victim died while en route to the hospital.

And with that, Wisconsin had its first pediatric death of the 2019-20 flu season, state officials announced Friday. And although they couldn’t say exactly when the death occurred, the timing was enough to make it especially painful.

“It’s a tragic situation for a child to die, especially during the holiday season,” said Tom Haupt, Wisconsin Department of Health Services influenza surveillance coordinator, during an afternoon media call.

Haupt declined to reveal the child’s age or gender, except to say that the child was younger than 10 and from the southeastern part of the state. It’s not yet known if the child had been vaccinated, Haupt said, as the family had only recently moved to the area.

But it comes during a flu season in which the disease is hitting the young unusually hard, he said.

Among the 622 people who have been hospitalized so far this season in Wisconsin, 60% have been younger than 65, Haupt said. That’s exactly flipped from a typical flu season, in which 60% would be older than 65.

The 15 deaths in the state have occurred across all ages, Haupt said. He added that 97 of the hospital admissions have required treatment in an intensive care unit.

Although the pediatric death was in southeastern Wisconsin, the disease has spread statewide, Haupt said.

“We are seeing hospitalizations of all ages, especially younger people, younger children throughout the state,” he said.

The influenza B virus and the influenza AH1 virus both are circulating in Wisconsin, Haupt said, and both affect young children. Two non-influenza viruses are circulating at the same time, adding to the difficulty.

Minnesota has experienced 16 influenza deaths this season as of the week ending Jan. 4, the state Department of Health reported Thursday. There have been no pediatric deaths. The state has had 753 hospitalizations, 25 of them in Northeastern Minnesota.

But at Essentia Health in Duluth, flu numbers have been trending down recently, spokesman Louis St. George said. Four patients were admitted with influenza this week, six the week before and 10 the week before that, he said.

Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke’s Infectious Disease Associates said he hasn’t seen enough evidence so far to determine if this has been a particularly severe season or if it has hit the young particularly hard.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson

“We’ve seen what is reflected in the state numbers,” he said. “Influenza B has been unusually active early in the season.”

In most seasons, the A strain — which tends to be more severe — arrives first, Thompson said.

“I’m concerned about the rest of the season because we have not seen much influenza A activity,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not still coming.”

With that in mind, Thompson said it’s not too late to get vaccinated for the flu, although it would have been better to do so earlier. “It takes a few weeks for it to take effect, and there might be another wave of flu coming.”

Wisconsin officials were making the same point.

“This is a sober reminder that flu is a serious illness,” state Health Officer Jeanne Ayers said. “We have a limited set of tools and they include vaccine.”