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Is Minnesota prepared for a flu outbreak?

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Hennepin County Medical Center
Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis is one of more than two dozen hospitals in Minnesota cooperating on their preparedness for a potential swine flu outbreak.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Twenty-nine Twin Cities hospitals opened a virtual "coordination room" today. The Web site allows them to share information with each other on their bed capacity. 

Mark Lappe with Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis says right now the information is updated once a day. But he says if Minnesota started seeing a lot of cases of swine flu, it could be updated every few hours. 

"Rather than one or two or three hospitals having a large surge of patients overwhelming those hospitals, we tried to work in unison in the metro area so we are kind of equally sharing the burden," said Lappe.  

Mark Lappe
Mark Lappe, HCMC director of safety, security and emergency preparedness, is in charge of the hospital's preparations for a swine flu outbreak.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

So far Minnesota hasn't had any confirmed cases of swine flu. But doctors in every corner of the state are watching for any sign of it.

"We did have a couple of cases over the weekend that were potential suspects, and those were tested and found to not have swine flu," said Dr. Bob Orenstein, an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. 

Mayo is telling its clinic and hospital patients that if they develop respiratory symptoms, they should call their doctor first and make an appointment. Orenstein says once patients get to their doctor's office they'll be given a mask and told to wash their hands.

Some clinics in Minnesota feel unprepared to deal with swine flu. Dr. Frank Rhame, an infectious disease expert at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, gave an example. He said his clinic was contacted by another clinic with a possible influenza case that it didn't want to handle. 

"The doc's office called us and said, 'Would you see this patient because we don't have isolation capability in our office.' This apparently was a Mexican association for this particular person," said Rhame.  

Workers sort out face masks
Workers sort out face masks at a factory in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government is just the latest to order preventative measures against the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico, which is believed to have killed up to 103 people there.
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Rhame thinks it's smart to take extra precautions right now. He says even patients who don't feel sick but might have been exposed to the virus should get checked out. 

"Ordinarily, if a person had a cold coming back from Mexico, I'd say, 'Come back in if you get really sick,'" he said. "But here I would say, for the benefit of us all, 'Come in and let some specimens be obtained so we can characterize the situation.'"  

As of Monday afternoon, the Minnesota Health Department has tested 14 patient specimens and  all been negative for the flu. They are encouraging clinics to send in any samples from any patients who might fit the influenza profile.

Greg Filice, chief of infectious diseases at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Minneapolis, says Minnesotans should feel good that there are so many people monitoring the situation.

"The state of Minnesota is better prepared than the average because we have a really first-rate Health Department," said Filice. "And they have, in typical Minnesota fashion, been doing all the things we're supposed to do." 

United Hospital in St. Paul
A view of United and Children's hospitals from atop the Cleveland Circle ramp in downtown St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

But Filice says influenza is very unpredictable. He says there's no question even a mild to moderate outbreak will tax the state's ability to respond.    Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that's also true on a national level. 

"I think there's a tremendous amount of naivete in the health care setting of the United States about the next pandemic," he said.  

Osterholm says in discussions over the weekend about whether the U.S. should close its border with Mexico, he said it was clear some people hadn't thought about the implications of that decision on hospital supplies. 

He says there's already a shortage of ventilator circuits, a piece of equipment used to connect the device to patients. Closing the border would make the situation much worse.

"All of the circuits are made outside of the United States, and the single largest source of circuit manufacturing for the United States is Mexico," said Osterholm. "If we shut our borders, we'd have ventilators within days that had no circuits and couldn't be used in patients. And most health care facilities haven't thought about that." 

Osterholm says the same is true with many drugs, as well as other medical supplies like masks, gloves and gowns. 

Still, it's not clear that the current outbreak will lead to a pandemic. Public health officials say it could be weeks or even months before the course of this virus is known.