State government officials say the avian flu virus could show up in Minnesota later this year. Commissioners from the departments of agriculture, health, human services, natural resources and public safety offered messages of reassurance by highlighting the extensive plans they've developed for that expected arrival.
Some experts predict the virus could arrive from migrating birds as soon as this summer. Gene Merriam, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, says he doesn't think it will be that soon.
"We think a greater likelihood for the first showing is in the fall, when the return migration is coming," says Merriam. "And even a small likelihood then. Other routes to get here, whether it's from domestic birds, imported or humans bring it in by air travel."
Merriam says the DNR will begin a joint effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this fall to test and monitor wild birds for the avian virus.
We have a potentially monstrous crisis looming on the horizon, and we all need to pull together now and do something about it.House Minority Leader Matt Entenza
The virus also poses a potential threat to the state's poultry industry. But Dr. Bill Hartman of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health says procedures are in place to respond to an outbreak.
"That flock would be put down and disposed of at that point. And we would also establish surveillance zones around that premises to look for the disease -- any spread of the disease," sais Hartman.
The larger potential threat comes if the bird flu should mutate into a strain that spreads easily among humans. State Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach says her department is preparing for major flu pandemic.
"You would have experts tell you that it's not a question of if, it's a question of when -- that this is a cyclical process through history and that we're due, so to speak," says Mandernach. "Whether in fact it's the avian flu that mutates, such that we end up with pandemic, that's one scenario. But the reality is that the preparedness we're doing -- the preparation that we're doing now -- puts us in a position for whatever comes down the pike."
The story is similar in every corner of state government. But Public safety Commissioner Michael Campion says preparing for a potential threat can be challenging.
"When you prepare and nothing happens, you're subject to being criticized for overpreparing. If you prepare and something happens, you didn't prepare enough," says Campion.
Campion says the governor's supplemental budget request is needed to train local emergency workers as part of the overall state plan. Gov. Pawlenty is seeking $10.5 million each of the next three years for bird flu preparedness. But a bill moving through the DFL Senate provides only $2.5 million. Legislation in the Republican House includes just $1 million.
Several House DFL lawmakers are also calling attention to the funding gap. House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul is also questioning whether the state is truly prepared for the bird flu. Entenza says it's time for Democrats and Republicans to come together to address the issue.
"The issue is that we have a potentially monstrous crisis looming on the horizon, and we all need to pull together now and do something about it. And if we do, we can at least minimize the impact of it," says Entenza. State officials say they'll keep planning, no matter how the funding debate is resolved. They're also trying to keep the public up to speed on their efforts through a new state bird flu Web site.