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Newest flu report better news

Terri Hyduke of the Children's Physician Network says that calls to the Minnesota FluLine are returned by nurses in a matter of minutes. When it opened a month ago, waits of up to 13 hours were reported. Photo by Don Davis.

Minnesota's H1N1 flu outbreak continues to ease, but state health officials warn that another wave may be on the way.

"We may be down in terms of influenza activity," State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said Wednesday.

However, she warned, other states also have seen the H1N1 swine flu wane before another wave hits.

"We are preparing for a potential third wave that could happen in January or February," Lynfield said.

Also, she added, past pandemics have come in waves, so Minnesotans should continue to wash their hands, cover coughs and stay home when sick.

Even if the H1N1 flu subsides, Lynfield warned, the seasonal flu often begins in December. "I don't want people to let up their guard."

The Health Department reported that more Minnesotans with flu-like illnesses went to the doctor last week and five H1N1-related deaths were confirmed, bringing the state total to 26 since the outbreak began in April. Two other deaths are suspected to be swine flu related, but have not been confirmed.

Deaths confirmed last week were in Olmsted, Swift, Nicollet and Blue Earth counties. All five had health problems other than the flu, Lynfield said. They ranged in age from 20 to 79.

For the most part, Wednesday's H1N1 news was good.

Just nine schools reported H1N1 swine flu outbreaks last week, down from 40 two weeks ago, 137 three weeks ago and 288 four weeks ago. Five outbreaks were reported in the Twin Cities, with single school outbreaks in four rural counties: Cook, Crow Wing, Douglas and Le Sueur.

H1N1 is more likely to affect school-age youths, so school outbreaks often are used as indications of how widespread the illness is.

Since April, 1,699 Minnesotans have been hospitalized with H1N1. Most people with symptoms are not tested until they are admitted to a hospital.

Seventy-eight Minnesotans were hospitalized with the flu last week, with by far most of them in the Twin Cities area.

As of Wednesday, 825,000 doses of H1N1 vaccine have been ordered for 760 clinics around the state. Most vaccine has been used on young people and pregnant women.

Health officials had expected many more doses by now.

"It truly is frustrating for everyone involved," Lynfield said.

The Health Department's Kristen Ehresmann said availability of the vaccine is unpredictable, but the state needs 2.7 million doses if all the high-risk people who need it actually receive a shot or mist. That number includes people up to age 24, pregnant women, people aged 25 to 64 with chronic conditions and health-care workers.

While the number of people with H1N1 appears to be falling, so is the number of calls to the month-old Minnesota FluLine. The state established the hotline, at (866) 259-4655, for people with flu-like symptoms to call for a nurse's advice.

At first, the line was so busy, it took up to 13 hours for a nurse to call back. Now, the wait usually is 5 minutes to 10 minutes, according to Terri Hyduke, chief executive officer of the Children's Physician Network that runs the line.

Of the 22,000 calls the line has received, she said, half came in the first week.

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.