ST. PAUL -- Operators are standing by to answer calls from feverish, coughing and achy Minnesotans.
What Minnesota health officials call the country's first statewide flu help line that can prescribe medicine launched Wednesday at (866) 259-4655. Minnesota FluLine, open 24 hours every day indefinitely, was established to give Minnesotans who think they have the flu a place to call for advice.
Operators working 50 telephone lines will transfer sick Minnesotans to their own insurance companies or doctors' clinic nurse lines or provide a state-funded nurse. There is no charge for the service or the call.
Health officials encourage people with flu symptoms not to automatically go to the doctor because it clogs clinics and infects others. But many doctor and hospital telephone lines are becoming congested with sick people asking what they should do.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan said FluLine was set up to provide people with options "without necessarily having to leave home."
Magnan said people sick with the flu need to stay home until at least 24 hours after their symptoms disappear.
Often, she added, "we can manage the flu at home."
Calling FluLine should help relieve burdens on health-care providers, the Health Department's Dr. Aaron DeVries said.
"It is stretching our health-care system in new ways," he said about H1N1 flu, also known as swine flu, which has become a pandemic worldwide.
Nurses on the state line, as well as hotlines provided by insurance companies and clinics, may recommend rest and drinking fluids, or in more serious cases may recommend a doctor's visit or a trip to the emergency room.
Nurses working for the state service also may prescribe medications, such as Tamiflu, for those who are particularly susceptible to the new H1N1 flu, including children younger than 2, pregnant women, people older than 65 and others with medical problems.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said that almost all flu circulating now is H1N1, the illness that has spread around the world since surfacing early this year. However, she said, seasonal flu likely will begin making people sick in December or January. Symptoms of the two flu types are similar.
H1N1 often affects younger people, while the seasonal flu is expected to hit the older population harder.
The state is paying up to $2.5 million of federal money for FluLine, and Magnan said health officials have no idea how many people will make use of the service. But she said it is worth the cost because it will help people recover, keep them from infecting others and ease telephone burdens health-care providers face.
The state is paying Children's Physician Network to run the hotline. The network's Terri Hyduke said that it will provide nurses, but others are being trained to direct calls.
The calls will be taken "in a hidden place," Hyduke said.
"There are people who would want to harm people like this," Magnan added, without going into detail.
People calling Minnesota FluLine who do not speak English will be sent to an interpreter.