Pair of young Manitobans, ages 17 and 24, die from flu complications, families say

A 17-year-old high school student and 24-year-old woman have died in Manitoba from the flu, according to their respective families.

Blaine Ruppenthal, a Grade 12 student at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, died Monday after suffering medical complications.

Ruppenthal went into cardiac arrest twice on Jan. 7 and was rushed to St. Boniface Hospital, where he was put into an induced coma and received hypothermic therapy, according to a Facebook post from his cousin Mary-Anne Clarke.

“Doctors have concluded this was caused by the Type A influenza,” Clarke wrote.

Kelvin principal Maria Silva sent a letter to parents and guardians of all students on Monday, saying a counselling centre will be up at the school for anyone who needs to talk.

“It is hoped that by providing a supportive place for expressions of grief, the students and staff will be able to understand and cope with the loss,” the letter says.

“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the news of his passing.”

Blaine Ruppenthal’s cousin, Mary-Anne Clarke, described him as ‘a beautiful, smart, kind boy.’ (Submitted by Mary-Anne Clarke/Facebook)

The school letter also includes a link to a Facebook memorial page; Ruppenthal’s family asked that it be shared so friends could contribute memories and condolences.

“Just as we have encouraged students to express their feelings here at school, we also encourage you to discuss the death at home,” the letter says.

“Listening to your child and acknowledging their feelings will be helpful. As each child and their experiences are different, the need for discussion and support will also vary.”

Winnipeg School Division spokesperson Radean Carter said counsellors will be at Kelvin for as long as students and staff need.

Meanwhile, Joanne Ens from Winkler, Man., died Jan. 6. She had been battling the flu since Jan. 1, when she also contracted a bacterial infection that she was unable to recover from, according to her obituary.

Joanne Ens died earlier this month, after suffering complications from influenza, her family says. (Marissa Naylor Photography)

“Joanne was an amazing person,” said Joanne’s husband Dustin Ens, adding that, at one time, she struggled with depression but was able to pull herself out, and started helping others battling the mental illness.

“She loved like heck. That is my motto for 2020, is to love like heck in memory of Joanne,” Ens said.

Ens told CBC News the couple had visited a walk-in clinic on Friday, Jan. 3, where Joanne was prescribed some medication and told to come back if she wasn’t better by the following Monday.

“On Saturday, she was still getting worse. And then on Sunday, it still was progressing worse,” Ens said. “She was very weak and very crackly breathing.”

Ens called Health Links Sunday evening to get a second opinion, he said.

“When they heard her breathing, they said, ‘I would recommend taking her to the emergency room.'”

Ens brought his wife to Boundary Trails Health Centre, near Winkler. She was transported to St. Boniface Hospital via STARS ambulance, but doctors could not treat her when she arrived because she had gone into septic shock, Ens said.

Joanne and Dustin Ens dated for two years before getting married in May 2019. (Marissa Naylor Photography)

“Every doctor that was involved said that it did start as influenza B and progressed from there,” he said, adding that blood samples have not returned yet, so that is not confirmed.

Ens said he recommends people consult their physicians, get the flu shot, and be wary of what they read online when it comes to getting immunizations and anti-vaccination rhetoric.

Only 22 per cent of the province’s population has gotten the seasonal influenza vaccine so far this year, Manitoba Health says.

“We do see, every year, young healthy people who do get the flu and have serious outcomes,” Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, told CBC News.

“It is serious. It is tragic. But it’s not unheard of.”

Roussin said the province is seeing the spread of both Type A and Type B influenza, although influenza B has been seen more often and “at much higher levels than we normally see for this time of year.”

“[Influenza] B can cause significant illness and especially in younger individuals,” he said, adding that young children and adolescents can be seriously affected by the virus.

The deaths of Ruppenthal and Joanne Ens have not been officially confirmed as flu-related by Manitoba Health officials.

Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Brent Roussin, told CBC News it is not uncommon for healthy young people to suffer severe complications from influenza. (Submitted by Manitoba government)

This flu season, which started in September, has seen one lab-confirmed flu-related death, the province says.

That death was reported to Manitobans in early December. No information on the age or gender of the person was provided.

During last year’s flu season, 17 people died in Manitoba, a Manitoba Health report says.

WRHA affected by flu

Family members of Joanne Ens told CBC News that there was a delay in transporting her from Boundary Trails Health Centre, because STARS had trouble finding hospitals in Winnipeg that could accommodate her.

Earlier this month, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority activated over-capacity protocols and the regional flu plan in its hospitals because there was a sudden rise in patients visiting emergency, urgent care and critical care departments.

In an internal memo sent to staff obtained by CBC News, WRHA administrators said there had been confirmed cases of Type A influenza, Type B influenza and respiratory syncytial virus at the same time.

“To have all three viruses surge at once is unusual. Most years, each virus starts and peaks at a different time,” the memo says.

“This is a challenging time but all hands are on deck and we are monitoring the situation and meeting every day to ensure we are doing what we can to provide safe care.”

Actions that come with addressing capacity issues in critical care in Winnipeg includes rescheduling elective surgeries and maximizing all available space in intensive care units, a WRHA spokesperson said in an email to CBC News Tuesday.

“We indicated last week that we would review the need to reschedule surgeries on a day-by-day basis which continues,”  the spokesperson wrote.

St. Boniface made room by rescheduling surgeries and transferring some to other facilities. Between Jan. 13-15, St. Boniface postponed 28 surgeries and sent another seven to Pan Am or Victoria Hospital, the spokesperson said.

They added that Winnipeg hospitals are in regular contact with one another about distributing patients, including sending some to Brandon, although “fewer than five” patients have been shipped there.

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