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Surveillance continues at local health facilites for novel influenza, other flu viruses

WILLMAR -- The H1N1 novel influenza virus is almost certainly circulating in the region, but surveillance indicates that it's neither widespread nor severe.

As of Friday morning, 56 cases of the novel virus had been confirmed by Minnesota's public health laboratory since the outbreak began in late April.

Seven of them were in the southwestern region of the state, a 16-county area that includes Kandiyohi, Chippewa, Renville, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties. The south central region, which includes Meeker County, had reported none.

Testing at the state health laboratory for the novel flu virus, also known as swine flu, has been focused mainly on people with influenza-like illness who meet certain criteria: those sick enough to be hospitalized, pregnant women, people with immune system problems, and health care workers. Rice Memorial Hospital has been on the lookout for patients who fit this profile, but so far there have been very few of them, said Barb Piasecki, an infection control nurse for the hospital.

"I think we've only had one so far, and that was way early on," she said.

That patient turned out to have an illness other than the H1N1 novel virus, she said. For several weeks the hospital was screening both its inpatients and emergency-room patients for possible H1N1, but the screening is now taking place only for inpatients, Piasecki said.

The Minnesota Department of Health will be keeping tabs on the novel virus throughout the summer, collecting lab samples from influenza surveillance sites as one of its information-gathering tools.

There are about 30 of these sites across the state, consisting mainly of outpatient medical clinics.

Affiliated Community Medical Centers, which participates in the surveillance program at its Willmar clinic, will continue to test patients with influenza-like illness through the summer, said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center.

"That is unusual. By now we would be wrapping up," she said.

The surveillance sites test more widely, allowing the state Health Department to obtain a broader snapshot of what kinds of influenza-like viruses are circulating around the state.

"We continue to routinely send samples in," DeBruycker said. "It's really about looking more closely in our region, beyond the usual screening tool that you use."

ACMC's urgent care staff, pediatricians, other physicians and the laboratory staff all are involved in the Health Department sentinel site program, she said. "It takes all the support of all of them to continue this effort... It takes a whole team approach."

The regular influenza season was been milder this past winter than in the previous few years. But unusually, it doesn't appear to be over.

Cases of regular flu continue to show up sporadically across Minnesota, the state Health Department reported.

"We're continuing to see influenza B and this is nearly June," DeBruycker said. "This is an atypical year."

Nationally, influenza also has remained active through May in many states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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