Minnesotans who think they have the flu can now call a new phone line to talk to a nurse about their symptoms and learn about treatment options.
The Minnesota Department of Health announced Wednesday that the line, which all Minnesotans can call toll-free, will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Officials said nurses working the phones will help answer questions from people with mild to moderate symptoms who could likely treat themselves at home, rather than seeking care at a hospital or doctor's office where they might give the virus to someone else.
"We want to ensure that Minnesotans with flu symptoms get the information they need ... without necessarily having to leave home," state Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan said during a news conference.
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Magnan said the hotline is an effort to handle the surge of patients flooding into area clinics and hospitals. Magnan said there hasn't been anything like it in more than 40 years.
"We know that people are calling provider groups now. I had one provider just this week say his calls have tripled in the last two weeks," said Magnan.
The Minnesota FluLine has been put together using existing nurse triage hotlines, and will be operated by the Children's Physician Network, which helps staff the Twin Cities Children's Hospitals.
FluLine also has support from Medica, Health Partners, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the Mayo Clinic, among others. Interpreters will be available for callers who don't speak English.
For cases in which a caller is at risk of developing complications, antiviral medications like Tamiflu can be prescribed over the phone. Prescriptions will be faxed to pharmacies if necessary, so that treatment can start quickly and protect people at highest risk, Magnan said.
"We believe this is a good step in managing antivirals in the state, and getting them to the right people at the right time," she said.
Callers will initially talk with someone who will ask basic questions, including what health care system covers the caller. In many cases, callers will be transferred to a triage line within their health care system, but those who are uninsured are still able to talk to a nurse.
State epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said the phone service will also help minimize the spread of the illness by keeping the flu-stricken from coming into contact with others.
"We want to keep people away from emergency rooms and doctors offices if we can," she said.
Lynfield conceded that most people will have to make do with that and other basic protections for now -- like covering their coughs, washing their hands, and distancing themselves from others to avoid exposure.
Having sick people stay home, Lynfield says, may be the best remedy available.
Health Commissioner Magnan said officials don't yet know how many calls they'll receive on the FluLine, but she said up to $2.5 million in federal money could be used to keep it running.
The H1N1 flu vaccine still isn't widely available, and health officials said they didn't know when it would be. In the meantime, they're asking Minnesotans to let the state work through its plan to cope with the disease.
"During this initial time, when it is coming in in batches, we are really asking people to be patient and allow those individuals at the highest risk for the disease to receive their vaccine first," state epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said.
The FluLine number is 1-866-259-4655.