President Barack Obama has declared that the H1N1 flu outbreak is a national emergency. The emergency declaration allows hospitals and local governments to set up temporary sites for treatment.
MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke with reporter Lorna Benson who's been tracking the flu story in Minnesota.
Q: President Barack Obama has declared a national emergency because of H1N1 flu. How will this declaration affect what is happening in Minnesota?
A: The declaration gives hospitals flexibility to set up off-site clinics to treat H1N1 patients if they can't handle the volume of patients showing up in emergency rooms. Federal rules normally prevent hospitals from setting up an auxiliary clinic if it's more than a couple hundred feet from the hospital, but the declaration means clinics can be placed at other locations. Hospitals in southern states have set up tents to treat patients with flu symptoms, but cold weather prevents states like Minnesota from setting up tents at this time of year. Assuming it gets permission from the Secretary of Human Services, a hospital in Minnesota can now set up a flu clinic in a building farther away from the hospital if needed.
Q: What is the current state of the outbreak here in Minnesota?
A: The flu outbreak is considered widespread throughout Minnesota. One way to track this is through hospitalizations, and health officials have said all eight regions of the state have reported hospitalizations.
Another way to track the outbreak is through 28 health care providers that report each week the number of patients sick with flu-like illness. During the past week, those providers reported that nearly 13 percent of their clinic visits were for flu. In contrast, only about 4 percent of clinic visits were related to flu-like illness during the peak of the flu season two years ago.
Q: The Minnesota Department of Health last week introduced the phone-based FluLine for people with symptoms. Are officials getting many calls?
A: The FluLine has been overwhelmed with calls. In the first 21 hours, the service received more than 2,100 calls from people wanting to speak with a nurse. And there were many more people who didn't get through.
Q: How does the situation here compare with the rest of the country?
A: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, H1N1 is widespread in 46 states. The remaining four states (Hawaii, South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey) are experiencing regional or localized outbreaks.
Q: What is happening with H1N1 flu vaccine?
A: It's just trickling out to the states. About 40 million doses were expected to arrive this month, but there have been some delays. As of Friday only 16 million doses were available to states. Federal officials are now saying that there might be 50 million doses by mid-November. About 117,000 doses have been shipped to Minnesota, according to the CDC. At the same time, 2.7 million Minnesotans are in at least one of the priority groups to receive the vaccine, so it's in very high demand.
The delays appear to be related to the challenges of growing the virus in chicken eggs, from which manufacturers have said they had trouble getting a good virus yield.
Q: How is the flu affecting schools and businesses in the state?
A: Besides a few temporary school closings, nearly all schools have remained open. There are currently 230 schools reporting excess absences to the health department.
Businesses don't have to report their absences to the health department the way schools do, but anecdotal reports indicate some businesses are experiencing a lot of absences.
Meanwhile, long-term care facilities have reported no flu outbreaks this week. It seems to fit with reports that indicate older people might have some natural immunity to the H1N1 virus possibly because they had been exposed to an earlier version of the virus when they were younger.
Q: When do experts think this outbreak will peak?
A: Some experts think we're seeing the peak right now, but it's hard to say. This is a new virus that isn't following the rules we're used to seeing with seasonal flu, which is active from October to May. Usually seasonal flu peaks in December, January or February.
It's also hard to know how long the outbreak will last. It could retreat for a few weeks and then come back for a third wave of illness in January or February. Or we could see this wave continue through the winter. If most people get sick this fall, at some point the virus could start having trouble finding new hosts. But at this point, it's too early to guess how this will play out.