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Health officials plan for swine flu

Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan and Gov. Tim Pawlenty discuss state response to the first "probable" case of swine flu in the state during a Wednesday news conference. Pioneer Photo/Scott Wente

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is prepared to respond to a swine flu outbreak, state health leaders say, but the first probable case was a "wake-up call."

Public health leaders attempted to reassure Minnesotans Wednesday that a well-rehearsed pandemic response plan is in place. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and top state health officials announced Minnesota's first probable case of swine flu in a woman affiliated with schools in Cold Spring, in central Minnesota.

Antiviral medications are being sent to regional hospitals and state health officials ask local public health officials to be aware of possible swine flu cases, while schools were reminded to closely monitor students' health.

The possibility of a Minnesota case opened some eyes.

"When it gets that close to home and there's possibilities of how it can come to your community, it really is a wake-up call," said Peggy Dykema, a school nurse in the New London-Spicer School District, southwest of Cold Spring.

School nurses have been advised to encourage students to wash hands and cover their mouths when coughing. Even before the Cold Spring case came to light, schools sent letters to parents reminding them to keep children, who are more susceptible to the flu, home if they have a fever or other symptoms.

Dykema said the extra attention that is being given to the potential health threat is appropriate.

That is the message state leaders are trying to send, even as they say Minnesota will see confirmed swine flu cases.

"This is a reason for concern, not for panic," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said.

The governor asked public health officials to "remain on high alert" for people who may have flu symptoms. Swine flu symptoms are similar to symptoms of seasonal influenza.

Rocori Middle School and St. Boniface School in Cold Spring were voluntarily closed Wednesday, following conversations among Pawlenty, the school superintendent and health officials.

Officials refused to disclose details about the woman who reported the flu symptoms, but said she was expected to make a full recovery. She had not been hospitalized. The woman had not visited Mexico, but had been in contact with someone who recently traveled there.

Mexico has seen the largest number of swine flu cases, resulting in at least 150 deaths.

That has Minnesota schools on notice because 4,000 to 5,000 students traveled to Mexico in the past few weeks for spring break, said Charlie Kyte, executive director the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

There also is cause for awareness among education officials because schools are where the greatest number of citizens in a community interact each day, Kyte said.

"It's a great place to communicate," he said, "and it's a great place to transmit diseases."

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said her agency is working closely with the state Health Department to provide Minnesota school leaders with information about swine flu, tips for how children can stay healthy and what to do if a student has flu-like symptoms.

Rocori Superintendent Scott Staska said he first learned of the illness Tuesday night, and he, his staff and state health officials considered options through the night. He considered a range of actions, from closing the entire school district to doing nothing.

"The way we could help people stay away from others was simply to have the building closed," Staska said.

Rocori High School was the scene of a 2003 school shooting. Two students died.

No other Minnesota schools have been closed as a result of the possible flu case in Cold Spring.

Federal health officials recommend schools be closed only if there is a confirmed case of the flu virus or a suspected case that is linked to a confirmed case, Pawlenty said. Those closings can last up to seven days.

The Minnesota Health Department described the Cold Spring case as "probable" because the state health laboratory could not identify the flu strain.

The Cold Spring sample was sent via state airplane to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for further study.

Minnesota health officials expect to receive equipment in the coming days that will allow them to test specimens for the swine flu. All states will get that equipment.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday raised the flu threat to the second-highest pandemic outbreak level. There is no vaccine for the H1N1 flu, as it is officially known, but the World Health Organization's decision will trigger more vaccine-research efforts.

Antiviral medications can be used to fight the flu. Minnesota has a stockpile of 400,000 antivirus doses, and is distributing some of those to regional hospitals.

Also, the state will receive another 200,000 doses from a federal government supply within one week.

All states are receiving an extra supply, but there is no other special fiscal federal assistance being given states with confirmed swine flu cases, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an interview.

"That would come if we got expanded problems," she said of additional federal help.

While Minnesota will receive more antiviral medication, State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said she does not want people to rush to pharmacies to purchase the drugs. Health officials do not want people using up the available supply, and said overuse of antiviral medication may reduce its effectiveness.

Cases of the virus strain have been found in 10 states and eight countries. There has been one U.S. death from the flu strain; the victim was a young Mexican child who traveled to Texas for treatment.

An estimated 36,000 people nationwide died from seasonal influenza last year. Seasonal flu and swine flu have similar symptoms.

State officials said they have spent 10 years planning for a pandemic flu outbreak, and Pawlenty said Wednesday he does not believe there is an immediate need for increased funding for flu-fighting efforts.

Legislators discussed the state's response in meetings Wednesday morning.

"We are in a monitoring mode," Kris Eide, Minnesota homeland security and emergency management director, told a Senate committee.

Eide said that for a couple of years the state has been prepared for the bird flu, and those preparations can be used to fight the new flu strain.

"It is a milder version of what we are planning for," Eide said. "Some of our activities are being addressed at a lower level."

Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, urged Eide to let him know right away if the state needs extra money to fight the flu. Eide said that discuss has yet to take place.

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State Capitol reporter Don Davis and the West-Central Tribune of Willmar contributed to this story. Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.