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Minnesotans fearful migrant workers may spread H1N1 flu

Armed with masks, gloves and disinfectant spray, Doris Faber, left, and Kim Tadych, Rocori School custodians, go about cleaning the closed Rocori Middle School where an individual has tested positive for Type A H1N1 influenza virus. The case was the state's first. AP Photo/The Star Tribune, David Joles

ST. PAUL -- Some Minnesotans expressed concern whether migrant workers' families would spread the H1N1 swine flu, even before nine probable state cases were reported.

One H1N1 case has been confirmed. State officials announced eight probable cases Friday, and authorities said they are checking whether at least one of the latest victims contacted anyone who had been to Mexico.

The flu's apparent Mexican origin led some southwestern Minnesota residents to contact school superintendents earlier this week, wondering whether migrant workers' children are more likely to carry the illness, said Charlie Kyte of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Health officials said there is no evidence suggesting a segment of the population, such as Mexicans, is any more susceptible to the flu strain.

"There is no reason to believe those communities are at higher risk," Buddy Ferguson of the state Health Department said of Minnesota cities with a large Mexican population.

The Health Department on Friday began investigating eight more probable H1N1 swine flu cases.

The department sent laboratory samples from eight victims to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. The victims, all of whom are recovering, are from the following counties: Isanti, Dakota, Wright, Polk, Scott and Hennepin. There are three Hennepin County victims. The state lab tested the samples, which appeared to indicate the new flu, but the federal facility in Atlanta must confirm it. Results may come this weekend.

State officials announced the second probable case Friday morning, in Isanti, followed by seven more cases late Friday. Authorities said they are checking whether the Isanti victim contacted anyone who had been to Mexico.

The first confirmed Minnesota H1N1 swine flu victim had ties to a Cold Spring middle school in central Minnesota. That victim, who also did not require hospitalization, had contact with someone who had visited Mexico.

State "epidemiologists are investigating whether there is a link to Mexico or to other areas where cases have occurred," the Health Department reported about the second Minnesota case. "This case does not involve a school."

The Health Department said late Friday "the widespread nature of the (seven) cases implies that the novel virus appears to be acting like seasonal influenza."

While Mexico has reported the most H1N1 flu cases, it is spreading so quickly that "the direct link to travel to Mexico will become less important or irrelevant," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said.

There are roughly 147,000 Mexicans living in Minnesota, according to 2008 figures provided by the state's Chicano Latino Affairs Council. The population tends to be in clusters in the Twin Cities and other regional centers, including Worthington, Willmar and Moorhead.

The council has prepared information -- in English and Spanish -- about the flu strain and what people can do to prevent a spread of the illness and provided it to Latino media outlets and other organizations in the state, Munoz said.

"It is concerning, but at this point it's something that is affecting all communities, regardless of ethnic heritage," said Rogelio Munoz, Chicano Latino Affairs Council executive director.

Public health officials in southern states, including California and Texas, are taking extra steps to provide health and swine flu information, written in Spanish, to migrant workers from Mexico who travel north to work for the summer.

Munoz said his group is aware of no special concerns about migrant workers in Minnesota. Most of Minnesota's migrant workers, who work in agriculture and construction, are from states in the Southwest, not Mexico, he said.

A large Cinco de Mayo festival this weekend in St. Paul will go on as planned. Similar festivals were canceled in other cities, including Chicago and Milwaukee, because of swine flu concerns.

Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan recommended that Minnesotans frequently wash their hands with soap and water, and long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.

"Don't touch your eyes and nose and mouth because that this how the influenza spreads," she added.

While she wants sick people to stay home, if they do go out, she said they should "do social distancing, which means stay six feet away from people."

The new flu is much like the seasonable variety, with fever, cough, sore throat and aches, Magnan said.

For those who think they may have the flu, she recommended: "Call your doctor, don't rush into the clinic." Sick Minnesotans should stay home, she added.

The virus has sickened people in 11 countries. One death has been reported in the United States, in Texas.

As of Friday evening, Minnesota health officials had tested 229 samples from people with flu symptoms, with more than 110 left to be checked.

The Minnesota lab is due to soon receive test kits that will allow it to single out the H1N1 virus.