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Swine flu: Local agencies prepared for potential epidemic

No one knows whether the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico that has killed a score or more of people will become a pandemic.

In the United States, cases of the new swine flu strain have been confirmed in California, New York, Texas, Kansas and Ohio. No cases have been identified in Minnesota.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Minnesota Department of Health reported that the public health laboratory had tested 29 specimens and all had been negative for swine flu.

But health care officials in the state in general, and Beltrami County in particular, are prepared to deal with a possible epidemic.

Beltrami County Public Health Nursing Director Linda Yourczek said the Minnesota Department of Health keeps Beltrami County informed of the public education response to the swine flu.

Beltrami County Health and Human Services participates in daily calls with the Minnesota Department of Health concerning the evolving swine flu situation and uses the county Web site to cite links to both the Minnesota Department of Health and Center for Disease Control. Officials recommend the Web site for information.

"We're activating our Flu Hotline here," Yourczek said. "It's not going to be manned, but it's going to be updated from the (state) health department."

The local Flu Hotline number is 333-8145.

Chris Muller of the Beltrami County Office of Emergency Management said his department is in partnership with Health and Human Services in monitoring the situation. And North Country Health Services is also coordinated with these agencies.

According to a Health and Human Services press release, state and local public health officials are responding aggressively to the potential swine flu threat. On Thursday, officials at the Minnesota Department of Health asked hospitals and physicians to begin submitting specimens for testing if they have any patients with the kind of respiratory symptoms that typically characterize influenza.

Health care providers are also being advised to contact the Minnesota Department of Health if they have patients with flu-like symptoms who have been to Mexico or to parts of the United States with confirmed cases of the unusual swine flu strain - or patients who have had contact with sick people who had been to one of the areas with confirmed cases of the illness.

"We're dealing with a chameleon - it's changing colors all the time," said Dr. Bob Rutka, North Country Health Services vice president of Medical Affairs.

Wendy Gullicksrud, North Country Health Services director of patient safety and infection control, said anti-viral Tamiflu can help if someone develops the flu, but it will be months before a vaccine specific to the new strain of flu is available.

"Even if they started right now, today, they wouldn't have anything until Christmas or after," Rutka said.

Masks are also not much help because they become damp fairly quickly, Gullicksrud said.

"The reason to wear a mask is to prevent you from spreading your disease to somebody else," Rutka said. "It doesn't protect you."

Real precautions, Gullicksrud said, are frequent hand washing and "respiratory hygiene," that is coughing into a sleeve or a tissue and disposing of the tissue.

He said the best place for someone who develops symptoms is home. And he warned against giving children aspirin for fever because of the dangerous reaction of Reye's syndrome. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is safe, he said.

People should seek treatment if they have a combination of two conditions - fever above 100.5 degrees F, cough, sore throat, runny nose and travel or close contact with someone who has traveled to Mexico, New York, San Diego or San Antonio in the last seven days.

People who believe they need treatment should go to MeritCare Urgent Care or the North Country Regional Hospital Emergency Unit.

If the flu strikes locally, Rutka said local emergency services, the hospital and the clinic are ready with enough medicine, equipment and facilities.

"We have been prepared for a while because of the avian flu, the bird flu, scare," said Gullicksrud.

Rutka said preventing panic is important.

And, said Gullicksrud, "It's safe to eat pork."