ST. PAUL - Callers to Minnesota's new flu hotline reported no answers, busy signals and long waits today as the Health Department said three more people died from H1N1 flu.
The deaths were in Martin, Steele and Freeborn counties, all in southern Minnesota. Two were children younger than 7, while the Martin County death was a woman in her early 60s.
The three died within the past two weeks, but the department waited for medical confirmation that H1N1, also known as swine flu, was the cause.
With today's report, 10 Minnesotans have died of the pandemic flu, with 611 others hospitalized. Most people with flu-like symptoms are not tested for the type of flu unless they are hospitalized, although health officials say H1N1 is the only strain in the state.
"We continue to follow this pandemic closely, and although we are seeing widespread infection due to H1N1 influenza, we are not seeing a change in the severity of the disease," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield. "Most people recover without complications, but, unfortunately, some people, particularly those who are pregnant, those who are very young or elderly or those who have underlying medical conditions, are at risk for more severe illness or complications. This is why we urge people to help stop the spread of this virus by staying home when they are sick and covering their coughs and washing their hands and by getting vaccinated."
While seasonal flu vaccine is available for most Minnesotans, vaccine for the N1H1 variety is scarce. Lynfield said she has no estimate about when that vaccine will be available for the general public, but by some estimates some Minnesotans who want to be vaccinated may have to wait until after Thanksgiving.
One day after the Health Department announced the country's first statewide flu hotline, that also can prescribe medicine, the 50 telephone lines appeared to be bogged down. The department had little to say about it this morning, but information was expected later in the day.
The hotline, which can be reached at (866) 259-4655, was established so people who think they might have the flu could call a nurse and get advice about what to do. Those who sounded seriously ill would be sent to a clinic or emergency room right away, while others were to be given advice such as staying home and drinking plenty of fluids.
Nurses in the program also can prescribe anti-flu medication, such as Tamiflu, if warranted.
When health officials announced the Minnesota FluLine late Wednesday morning, they said they might need to make changes as the program advanced. However, they said plenty of operators and nurses should be available to deal with sick Minnesotans.
In many cases, those calling the FluLine were supposed to be transferred to nurse lines operated by their clinics or insurance companies. If someone calling had neither of them available, Minnesota nurses funded by $2.5 million of federal money were supposed to help them.
Also today, the Health Department said that 230 schools reported outbreaks of flu-like illnesses last week, up 15 from a week earlier.