H1N1 linked to 6 Duluth deaths

DULUTH - "It's just unbelievable," said Debbie Walczynski of her son's death last week after a bout with the H1N1 flu. Matthew James Walczynski, 32, of Duluth came home from work Nov. 6 running a fever of 103.8 degrees, and went straight to bed, ...

DULUTH - "It's just unbelievable," said Debbie Walczynski of her son's death last week after a bout with the H1N1 flu.

Matthew James Walczynski, 32, of Duluth came home from work Nov. 6 running a fever of 103.8 degrees, and went straight to bed, according to his mother. Ten days later he was dead.

He's one of six people who have died in recent weeks at SMDC Medical Center in Duluth because of flu-related ailments, even as the number of flu patients has dropped across the Northland. Walczynski, a quality analyst for Optium Health, was the only one of the six who didn't have an underlying health condition before he came down with the flu, SMDC officials said.

SMDC officials confirmed Monday that five of the six dead were adults while one was a child. All the flu-associated deaths occurred in November and come a month after new flu cases peaked in the region and nationally.

"The majority have been in the 18 to 64 age group with chronic medical conditions," said Beth Johnson, SMDC spokeswoman.


But Matthew Walczynski had no prior history of health problems, his mother said.

"It came on quickly," Debbie Walczynski said. "We tried all weekend to get his temperature down, but we never could."

Besides the fever, Matthew Walczynski also became congested and complained of aches.

On the evening of Nov. 10, Walczynski arrived at the SMDC emergency room and was admitted on the spot.

X-rays revealed Walczynski's lungs were severely congested, and his oxygen levels were dangerously low, prompting his transfer to SMDC's coronary intensive care unit on Nov. 11. There, he was placed on oxygen to improve his breathing. Walczynski also was diagnosed with a bacterial blood infection.

That Saturday, a week after he came home sick, Walczynski was taken off oxygen and his X-rays seemed to show some clearing in his lungs. But on Monday, Nov. 16, his condition worsened.

"About halfway through the day it turned on him, and his heart gave out," Debbie Walczynski said.

Dr. Kevin Stephan, an infectious disease specialist at SMDC, said he has not heard of any other H1N1 death in the state involving an adult with no prior underlying medical issues that would place them at risk.


"It's an exceedingly rare occurrence that's highly unexpected," he said.

While Jim and Debbie Walczynski of Duluth grieve for their son, the local flu situation shows signs of improvement, Johnson said.

"We're seeing fewer new cases in recent weeks," she said. "But the serious cases of people with underlying conditions, this is still an issue for them. ... It's why we are still urging people to get their vaccine if they are in one of those priority groups."

It's possible that because of other health factors the Minnesota Department of Health may not classify all six of the Duluth fatalities as officially caused by the H1N1 novel virus, Johnson said.

No flu deaths occurred at St. Luke's hospital in Duluth during the week of Nov. 7-14. Statewide statistics for the past week will be released today.

Through Nov. 14, the most recent statistics available Monday, there have been 26 confirmed H1N1-related deaths in Minnesota since the recent outbreak began in September, and another two deaths are probably from H1N1.

Through Nov. 14, 1,439 cases of H1N1 have been confirmed statewide, including 139 in Northeastern Minnesota. But because H1N1 novel is the only flu now common in the area, it's likely hundreds if not thousands more people had the flu.

Across St. Louis County there have been 74 cases of H1N1 hospitalizations since September, county health department officials said Monday.


But the number of newly confirmed cases of H1N1 in Minnesota has crashed in recent weeks across the state, from 420 during the peak week in mid-October to fewer than 100 in the week ending Nov. 14. That number was expected to drop even more in numbers to be released today by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Dr. Linda Van Etta, St. Luke's hospital flu expert, said office, urgent-care and emergency-room visits for flu-like symptoms have declined dramatically here and across the U.S.

"And we're not seeing any new hospital admissions from the flu now," she said. "That's not to say people aren't being affected by the flu. But it appears this second wave is showing signs of slowing."

Van Etta said she expects a third wave of H1N1 to occur, possibly in January or February, but it's not clear if that wave will be less intense or more of a problem. That's also about when the usual seasonal flu will begin to hit the region hard.

News Tribune staff writer Peter Passi contributed to this report.

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