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'Probable' swine flu case reported in Minnesota

State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield discusses Minnesota's first "probable" case of swine flu at a news conference. Scott Wente/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Health officials are responding to the first probable case of the swine flu in Minnesota and cautioning that there will be confirmed cases of the new flu strain in the state.

The case was detected in a woman affiliated with schools in Cold Spring, in central Minnesota. The woman was not hospitalized and is recovering, but health experts are planning for more cases of the H1N1 flu strain, commonly called swine flu, to appear in Minnesota.

The state Department of Health characterized the Cold Spring case as "probable" because a lab confirmed the virus as type A influenza, but further testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is needed to identify the strain.

"This is a reason for concern, not for panic," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said at a morning news conference.

Pawlenty ordered a specimen from the Cold Spring individual be sent on a state airplane to the Centers for Disease Control Tuesday night. State officials hope to know by the end of today whether it is a confirmed case of the H1N1 flu strain.

John Stine of the Health Department said if the case is confirmed as swine flu, officials would talk more to the ill person "about contacts, activities that might suggest additional people to investigate and contact."

As a result of the probable case, Rocori Middle School and St. Boniface School in Cold Spring were voluntarily closed for today.

Pawlenty said he urged a Cold Spring official to close the schools, but left the decision to the superintendent.

Federal health officials recommend schools be closed only if there is a confirmed case of the flu virus or a suspected case that is linked to a confirmed case, Pawlenty said.

Confirmed swine flu cases have shown symptoms similar to seasonal influenza.

Cases of the virus strain, called H1N1 influenza, have been found in several states and countries and is blamed for more than 100 deaths in Mexico. There has been one U.S. death, in Texas, from the flu strain.

The state's top public doctors advised people who are sick to stay home and to check with a doctor if they have flu-like symptoms.

"I don't want people flocking to the clinic today," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist. "Use common sense."

There is no vaccine for the H1N1 flu, but antiviral drugs are effective at fighting the strain. The state has a stockpiling of 400,000 courses of antiviral medication, and is distributing some of those to regional hospitals. It has requested an additional 200,000 doses from the federal government; those could arrive within a week.

Health officials have enhanced virus surveillance throughout the state.

Lynfield said state health officials have processed about 72 flu specimens sent by local health providers and only the Cold Spring specimen was concerning.

Legislators discussed the state's response in meetings this morning.

"We are in a monitoring mode," Kris Eide, Minnesota homeland security and emergency management director, told a Senate committee.

Eide said the state is prepared to open the state Emergency Operations Center if the case is confirmed as swine flu.

She said that for a couple of years the state has been prepared for the bird flu, and those preparations can be used to fight the new flu strain.

"It is a milder version of what we are planning for," Eide said. "Some of our activities are being addressed at a lower level."

Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, urged Eide to let him know right away if the state needs extra money to fight the flu. Eide said that discuss has yet to take place.

Pawlenty said there is not an immediate need for additional funding to fight the flu strain.

Stearns County has partially activated its own emergency management center, placing people from many agencies in one place to deal with the Rocori incident.

Rocori Superintendent Scott Staska said he first learned of the illness Tuesday night, and he, his staff and state health officials worked 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.

Pawlenty said this morning that he canceled a planned trip to Harvard University tonight, where he was to give a speech on education.