ST. PAUL -- Flu-stricken Minnesotans are finding a shorter wait for medical advice when they call a state hotline.
"The wait times have improved," Buddy Ferguson of the Minnesota Health Department said Friday afternoon. "Right now, it is looking like two to four hours for a nurse to get back to you."
On Thursday, there were reports that Minnesota FluLine operators told callers they may not receive return calls for up to 13 hours. And many who called the line heard busy signals. One woman said she got a busy signal each of the 55 times she called seeking advice about how to help her sick grandson.
In the first two days of use, 5,500 calls were fielded at 1-866-259-4655. Of those people, nurses returned 1,950 calls; the rest were sent to other nurses' hotlines or did not need to talk to a nurse.
FluLine was established at midday Wednesday to give Minnesotans another avenue to get information if they think they have flu symptoms.
Health Department officials on Thursday admitted they were taken by surprise by the large number of callers, but said that just proved there is a need for flu information.
The line is only for people who think they have the flu, or for those who care for young people who may have the flu. Operators gather initial information, then send messages to nurses working for the state or transfer calls to other nurses' lines such as at clinics and insurance companies.
The initial heavy use was credited to extensive media coverage of the hotline's launch. FluLine use has remained steady, Ferguson said.
Ferguson urged Minnesotans to avoid the heaviest traffic times, which are before and after school and work. However, he said, officials did not know how busy the line will be this weekend.
Operators staff 50 incoming telephone lines every day around the clock.
Nurses advise patients about whether they need to see a doctor or go to the emergency room, or if they can care for the flu themselves. In some cases, nurses may prescribe a medication.
In Minnesota, like other states, the H1N1 swine flu is spreading rapidly from person to person. The seasonal flu has yet to begin its rounds.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said H1N1 is very easily transmitted. She has emphasized that sick people need to stay home until at least 24 hours after all flu symptoms disappear. Otherwise, she said, sick Minnesotans will make others sick.
Schools are especially hard hit. H1N1 affects young people and pregnant women harder than older people, although some of Minnesota 10 confirmed fatalities have been among the elderly with other health problems.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.