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Minn. health officials say they're ready, prepared for flu outbreak

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is prepared to respond to a swine flu outbreak, state health leaders say, but the first probable case was a "wake-up call."

Public health leaders attempted to reassure Minnesotans Wednesday that a well-rehearsed pandemic response plan is in place. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and top state health officials an-nounced Minnesota's first probable ca-se of swine flu in a woman affiliated with schools in Cold Spring, in central Minnesota.

Antiviral medications are being sent to regional hospitals and state health officials ask local public health officials to be aware of possible swine flu cases, while schools were reminded to closely monitor students' health.

The possibility of a Minnesota case opened some eyes.

"When it gets that close to home and there's possibilities of how it can come to your community, it really is a wake-up call," said Peggy Dykema, a school nurse in the New London-Spicer School District, southwest of Cold Spring.

School nurses have been advised to encourage students to wash hands and cover their mouths when coughing. Even before the Cold Spring case came to light, schools sent letters to parents reminding them to keep children, who are more susceptible to the flu, home if they have a fever or other symptoms.

Dykema said the extra attention that is being given to the potential health threat is appropriate.

That is the message state leaders are trying to send, even as they say Minnesota will see confirmed swine flu cases.

"This is a reason for concern, not for panic," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said.

The governor asked public health officials to "remain on high alert" for people who may have flu symptoms. Swine flu symptoms are similar to symptoms of seasonal influenza.

Rocori Middle School and St. Boniface School in Cold Spring, where the woman had some interaction, were voluntarily closed Wednesday, following conversations among Pawlenty, the school superintendent and health officials.

Officials refused to disclose details about the woman who reported the flu symptoms, but said she was expected to make a full recovery. She had not been hospitalized. The woman had not visited Mexico, but had been in contact with someone who recently traveled there.

Mexico has seen the largest number of swine flu cases, resulting in at least 150 deaths.

That has Minnesota schools on notice because 4,000 to 5,000 students traveled to Mexico in the past few weeks for spring break, said Charlie Kyte, executive director the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

There also is cause for awareness among education officials because schools are where the greatest number of citizens in a community interact each day, Kyte said.

"It's a great place to communicate," he said, "and it's a great place to transmit diseases."

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said her agency is working closely with the state Health Department to provide Minnesota school leaders with information about swine flu, tips for how children can stay healthy and what to do if a student has flu-like symptoms.

Rocori Superintendent Scott Staska said he first learned of the illness Tuesday night, and he, his staff and state health officials considered options through the night. He considered a range of actions, from closing the entire school district to doing nothing.

"The way we could help people stay away from others was simply to have the building closed," Staska said.

Rocori High School was the scene of a 2003 school shooting. Two students died.

No other Minnesota schools have been closed as a result of the possible flu case in Cold Spring.