ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP/WCCO) — Minnesota confirmed 23 more flu-related deaths Thursday, raising the season total to 27 for what Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger called the state’s most severe flu outbreak in several years.

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More than 1,100 people have been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms statewide this season, the Minnesota Department of Health said in a weekly update, and the commissioner said it’s putting stress on the health care system. Several hospitals have restricted visitors in an attempt to protect patients and staff.

Twenty-three of the state’s deaths and 62 percent of the hospitalizations have been in people 65 and older, the department said.

“If you have not received your flu shot it is not too late, but the sooner the better,” Ehlinger told reporters.

Doug Beardsley with Care Providers of Minnesota, an association representing nursing homes, says they’ve seen the spread spike in recent weeks.

“Anytime you have a congregate situation where people are in shared air space, it becomes a more difficult thing,” he said.

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People who are sick with flu symptoms should stay home from work or school to help blunt the outbreak Ehlinger said.

Flu activity is hitting hard around the U.S, with most states classifying it as widespread. The strain that’s causing the problems is called H3N2, a more traditional type of flu, and although it’s not a pandemic, it’s a severe outbreak.

Kris Ehresmann, the department’s infectious disease director, said in an interview that Minnesota’s last couple flu seasons were “very, very mild,” while this one is “very robust and very busy.” She said she didn’t want to downplay what’s happening now, but stressed that this is what a flu season often looks like.

State epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said influenza is associated with fever, headache, sore throat, and cough, while pertussis — or whooping cough — is a separate kind of virus that’s also affecting a record number of patients.

Department data show that Minnesota recorded 67 flu-related deaths and more than 1,800 hospitalizations during the 2009-2010 season, 70 deaths and more than 970 hospitalizations in the 2010-2011 season, and 33 deaths and more than 550 hospitalizations in the 2011-2012 season.

“All of our indicators are that this is a very, very busy and bad season, but it’s important to keep in perspective that this is what influenza is,” Ehresmann said.

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