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After day of aches, pains flu help line appears to be on track

ST. PAUL -- Flu-stricken Minnesotans are finding a shorter wait for medical advice when they call a state hotline.

"The wait times have improved," Buddy Ferguson of the Minnesota Health Department said Friday afternoon. "Right now, it is looking like two to four hours for a nurse to get back to you."

On Thursday, there were reports that Minnesota FluLine operators told callers they may not receive return calls for up to 13 hours. And many who called the line heard busy signals. One woman said she got a busy signal each of the 55 times she called seeking advice about how to help her sick grandson.

In the first two days of use, 5,500 calls were fielded at (866) 259-4655. Of those people, nurses returned 1,950 calls; the rest were sent to other nurses' hotlines or did not need to talk to a nurse.

FluLine was established at mid-day Wednesday to give Minnesotans another avenue to get information if they think they have flu symptoms.

Health Department officials on Thursday admitted they were taken by surprise by the large number of callers, but said that just proved there is a need for flu information.

The line is only for people who think they have the flu, or for those who care for young people who may have the flu. Operators gather initial information, then send messages to nurses working for the state or transfer calls to other nurses' lines such as at clinics and insurance companies.

The initial heavy use was credited to extensive media coverage of the hotline's launch. FluLine use has remained steady, Ferguson said.

Ferguson urged Minnesotans to avoid the heaviest traffic times, which are before and after school and work. However, he said, officials did not know how busy the line will be this weekend. Operators staff 50 incoming telephone lines every day around the clock.

Nurses advise patients about whether they need to see a doctor or go to the emergency room, or if they can care for the flu themselves. In some cases, nurses may prescribe a medication.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.