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Local health officials hike monitoring, preparation for swine flu

Stacey Zondervan, patient services director at Family Practice Medical Center of Willmar, is pictured Monday during statewide teleconference briefing on the swine flu outbreak that has been confirmed in the U.S. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Local health authorities have stepped up their surveillance for possible cases of North American, or swine, influenza.

They're also urging old-fashioned prevention measures for the public: hand washing, covering coughs and staying home when ill.

"Those types of things are what we want people to be doing right now," Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health, said Monday.

State and local officials stressed Monday that no confirmed cases of North American flu have been reported yet in Minnesota. As of Monday afternoon, at least 40 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. and "all have been mild," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health.

"I don't think this is the time to panic," she said during a statewide teleconference briefing Monday afternoon with media.

State health officials are "very concerned," however, and are responding aggressively, she said.

"We continue to work very closely with our partners on the federal level," she said.

Local medical clinics and Rice Memorial Hospital went on the alert over the weekend for potential cases of swine flu. They're on the lookout for influenza-like illnesses, especially among patients who have recently traveled to Mexico or to any of the states where swine flu has been confirmed.

"We know that our population is mobile," said Barb Piasecki, an infection control nurse at Rice Memorial Hospital.

Affiliated Community Medical Centers also is among the 29 emergency rooms and outpatient practices across the state that have been designated as sentinel sites for reporting influenza-like illnesses to the state Health Department and collecting specimens.

On Monday morning, a Kandiyohi County emergency response team met to share information and assess the situation.

"We've been planning for these kinds of things for a long time," Stehn said.

Local health officials are emphasizing a message to the public of awareness and prevention.

Kandiyohi County Public Health has added links on the county's Web page,, to the Minnesota Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Officials are asking the public to pay attention to basic hand-washing and other practices to help stem the spread of germs.

"If you're not feeling well, we would like you to stay home," Stehn said.

Flu-like symptoms should be reported to a health care provider, especially if someone has a recent history of travel.

At home, someone who's ill should try to stay isolated to minimize the chances of infecting other household members, said Stacey Zondervan, patient services director at Family Practice Medical Center of Willmar.

"We tend to let them hang out in the living room," she said.

Families should give some thought to an emergency plan and how they might handle a disruption to their routine, Stehn said. "It is a good time for people to be thinking about what is their family plan."

Behind the scenes, state and local health officials have been concentrating on ramping up for all the possibilities. At ACMC, the staff took stock Friday afternoon of everything from tissues and alcohol to plastic garbage bags -- "the practical things," said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center.

Extra supplies for culturing possible flu specimens arrived Monday, she said.

Lynfield said the state health laboratory has beefed up its capacity and will continue to work "as long as we need them."

The federal government is shipping part of its stockpile of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza to Minnesota this week. Guidelines are being developed by the CDC on who should receive the medication.

Because the situation is fluid, there may be new recommendations as things change and develop, Lynfield said.

Information will be released as state health officials learn more, she said. "We have a commitment to keep people up to date on what is happening."