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Swine flu tests to grow after confirmed case

Rocori School District Superintendent Scott Staska announces that his middle school will remain closed through next Tuesday as state health officials investigate a confirmed case of swine flu in Cold Spring, Minn. The flu victim had an affiliation with the school. With Staska is Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who with other state and local officials held a news conference Thursday at the district's high school, which remains open. Pioneer Photo/Scott Wente

COLD SPRING, Minn. -- Health officials are testing dozens of lab samples from people throughout the state for swine flu while Minnesota responds to its first confirmed case of the spreading influenza strain.

State Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan said Thursday that doctors from around Minnesota have sent to a state laboratory samples from patients with influenza symptoms, to determine whether they have swine flu.

That lab work was under way as state and local health officials searched for information about Minnesota's first swine flu case, confirmed Thursday morning by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The victim was affiliated with the Rocori Middle School in Cold Spring and was expected to make a full recovery. With symptoms similar to seasonal influenza, most swine flu cases reported in the U.S. have been mild.

Magnan and Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Minnesota officials are working to contain the number of possible cases, but are prepared to respond to an outbreak.

"You can expect that there will be more cases," she said at a news conference in the central Minnesota town. "That is not unusual."

The state had sent a lab sample to the Centers for Disease Control late Tuesday for confirmation after it was determined to be a probable case of the flu strain.

Rocori School District Superintendent Scott Staska said the middle school will remain closed at least through Tuesday. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for a school to be closed one week if there is a confirmed case of the flu strain or a probable case that can be linked to a confirmed case. Middle school activities, including sports, also are canceled.

St. Boniface private school, which is located next to the public middle school and uses its cafeteria, was closed for a second day Thursday. Other schools in the community and region remained open.

The middle school will be cleaned while it is closed. The work will involve standard cleaning chemicals and may be limited to common surfaces, such as drinking fountains and door knobs.

Health officials are calling people who may have had contact with the victim, trying to determine its source and notifying people they may have been in contact with the victim. The Health Department is focusing on a region that includes Stearns and Anoka counties, Magnan said.

State officials say they cannot release information about the victim because of privacy laws. Staska, the school superintendent, said even he has not been told the victim's name.

Minnesota has only the one confirmed case, but health officials had reviewed more than 100 samples by Thursday morning and had at least 50 more samples to test for probable swine flu, which state officials call the "H1N1 novel influenza virus."

But just the one known case is leading to an increase in the number of lab samples that physicians request be tested. The number of samples being sent to the Health Department likely will grow in the coming days.

"That is a real concern for us," said Dave Boxrud, molecular epidemiology supervisor at the Health Department.

Around 20 people work on the flu test process, from conducting the actual lab work to documenting where the samples are coming from. It takes up to eight hours to process and test a sample, Boxrud said, and the state lab could do up to several hundred at a time, if necessary.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending a special kit to Minnesota and other states beginning today that will allow state labs to determine whether a sample is the swine flu strain. Minnesota could get its kit as early as Saturday, Boxrud said.

That will eliminate the need to send any probable samples to Atlanta for confirmation, as was done with the Cold Spring sample. However, the federal lab still will want to verify a state's first five confirmed cases, Boxrud said.

Little is known about the flu strain, Magnan said. It could die out in a short time, escalate and spread or disappear in a short time only to return in a "more severe" phase months later.

"Realistically, we have to acknowledge that we should expect more cases," Pawlenty said.

Local residents took news of the flu case in stride, said Nicole Lang, nursing director at the Assumption Community nursing home in Cold Spring.

People are more aware of the need to wash their hands frequently and to practice good hygiene, Lang said. Health officials say simple acts keeping hands clean and covering a cough with a tissue or shirt sleeve can reduce the likelihood of getting the flu.

"Aside from that, we just conduct business as usual," Lang said.

People did take some extra precaution. Worshipers did not shake hands during a Wednesday night mass at St. Boniface, a parishioner said.

Cold Spring Mayor Doug Schmitz said citizens he talked to were concerned, but not scared, about the flu situation.

"People don't get too overly concerned," Schmitz said.

The Health Department launched a public hotline for information about the new flu strain. The phone - (800) 657-3903 - is answered 8 a.m. until 4:30p.m.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.