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Health officials continue to urge flu prevention as outbreak monitored

Medical lab technician Vonnie Blommel checks influenza testing kits Wednesday at Affiliated Community Medical Center in Willmar. The test kits, above and top, can be used for testing purposes in influenza cases detected in west central Minnesota. Tribune photos by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County health officials are continuing to urge preventive measures -- hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when ill -- to reduce the risk of H1N1 novel influenza.

Their message took on extra urgency Wednesday with the announcement of a possible H1N1 flu case in Cold Spring in neighboring Stearns County.

The news was not unexpected, said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health.

"We've been waiting and it really wasn't a huge surprise," she said at a media briefing Wednesday with local health officials.

There's a chance the novel influenza virus, also known as swine flu, will eventually show up in Kandiyohi County as well, she said.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we had a case here," she said. "We're preparing as if we would deal with something here, but we don't know. It's a very fluid situation."

Local planning continues to focus on preparedness and communication.

At Kandiyohi County Public Health, for instance, readiness has been stepped up a few notches and roles assigned to the staff so That they can respond quickly if H1N1 influenza is found here, Stehn said.

Rice Memorial Hospital has been holding daily briefings to address issues such as how patients should be screened for potential influenza in the emergency room and in inpatient and outpatient departments -- and what to do if someone turns up positive, said Barb Piasecki, infection control nurse for the hospital.

Medical clinics have stocked up on supplies such as masks and alcohol. They're also working to ensure physicians and staff have access to the information they need.

Affiliated Community Medical Centers has been emphasizing communication among the physicians at its 10 regional medical clinics, said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center.

"Our providers really are very calm. ... Everybody's just trying to be watchful and practical," she said.

At Family Practice Medical Center, "The biggest thing we're seeing at this point is educating staff," said Stacey Zondervan, patient services director.

There have also been several phone calls from the public, she said. "We're getting great questions from patients. We're answering them the best we can."

What's new and different about this virus is that it hasn't previously been reported -- and there's currently no vaccine for it, leaving the population largely unprotected.

There are still many unknowns about the virus: how fast it's likely to spread, how many people are likely to get sick and how severe their illness might be. Cases in the United States have been mild so far, but the disease has hit especially hard in Mexico for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Those most at risk right now are people who have recently traveled to Mexico or other areas where H1N1 influenza has been reported, or people who have had close contact with someone infected.

Health authorities believe the at-risk group will likely expand, however, as the number of cases grows.

"There is a potential it could become more pandemic-like," Stehn said.

Symptoms the public should watch for: fever, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion, headache and body aches. The symptoms usually have a sudden onset.

These don't necessarily mean someone has H1N1 influenza, Zondervan said. Although it's close to the end of the regular flu season, those viruses are still circulating as well, she said.

Anyone with flu-like symptoms should call their health care provider, however, for further screening and advice, local officials said.

These patients can expect to be tested for the presence of the H1N1 flu virus. Affiliated Community Medical Centers, one of 29 designated surveillance sites for the Minnesota Department of Health, is taking nasal samples at all 10 of its regional clinics from patients who show up with influenza-like illness. Culture results are being reported daily to the state Health Department, DeBruycker said.

Family Practice Medical Center and Rice Memorial Hospital also are sampling and culturing patients who report flu-like illness.

So far, Kandiyohi County has shown itself to be well-prepared for the situation that has been unfolding this week, Stehn said.

"It's a test. It's practice," she said. "We've definitely learned some things. We've been changing and adapting things as we go."