By Heather Brown

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Since mid-August, six people in the U.S. have died from a lung disease likely related to vaping. One of those was a person over 65 years old in Minnesota. It’s being called a mystery illness that’s now sickened more than 450 people across the country. It’s also become a top priority for state health departments.

So, what do we know about this lung illness? Good Question.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” said Dr. Richard Danila, deputy state epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. “It’s a strong national search to try to figure it out.”

In Minnesota, 28 cases of severe lung injuries possibly due to vaping have been confirmed. Fifteen others are being reviewed by state investigators.

“If you had interviewed me yesterday, I would have said 38 cases, now we have 41,” Dr. Danila said on Thursday. “So, we’re adding cases every day.”

Patients have complained of shortness of breath, chest pain and flu-like symptoms. More than half of the Minnesota patients have ended up in the intensive care unit. The average age of Minnesota patients is 24 years old.

One Illinois teenager told CBS News, “It felt like a bear was on my chest.”

Vaping is breathing an aerosol that’s created from heating up a liquid. Often, that liquid contains nicotine and flavoring. But, some people are putting THC, the component of marijuana that makes people high, in that liquid instead.

“We know the vast majority of cases of these severe lung injuries associated with vaping have been vaping illicit THC,” says Dr. Danila.

Minnesota health officials have interviewed several of the Minnesota patients about their illness and found all of them obtained the THC from drug dealers or friends. None have reported using THC from a legal dispensary.

So, why now?

“That’s the question,” said Dr. Danila. “We really don’t know.”

Some state health departments have found a Vitamin E acetate in the samples of THC they’ve tested. New York State said it’s now a key focus on their investigation.

“Is that the cause of this outbreak or is this merely a marker for some other contaminant,” said Dr. Danila. “We just don’t know yet.”

He said investigators are looking at how often a person vapes or the type of device they’re using in trying to determine what’s causing the illness.

At this point, it’s not clear what the long-term effects would be from these illnesses.

“There’s much more than unknown that known,” says David Ingbar, MD, Professor of Medicine and Division Director for Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care & Sleep at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Each product is going to be unique and we won’t know for years or decades.”

The Minnesota Department of Health is recommending people not vape using illicit THC products. The CDC is going a step further in recommending people not vape anything until they know more.

Dr. Ingbar said these spate of illnesses has changed his guidance on all kinds of vaping. He used to say it could be an option for people tried to quit smoking.

“Now with the greater risk, to put it in everyday vernacular, you’d be nuts to vape,” he said.

Heather Brown