State scales back response to swine flu, but stays alert

The state is scaling back some precautionary measures because the new flu strain is acting like ordinary seasonal flu. No new cases have been confirmed, but two more probable cases have been added to the list.

Saying "the world looks very different today than a week ago," Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan said Monday it's no longer necessary to close schools if the new swine flu is discovered among students or staff.

Magnan announced that the state is scaling back some precautionary measures because the new strain seems to be acting like ordinary seasonal flu, rather than the dangerous epidemic that some had feared.

Even so, two Minnesota schools where cases have been reported were to remain closed today, as district officials in Minneapolis and Orono opted to play it safe another day.

Schools will have the option to remain open, instead of closing for up to 14 days, which had been recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. On Monday, CDC officials said they may change that recommendation in light of the relatively mild outbreak.

As of today, no new cases had been confirmed in Minnesota, which reported one confirmed case.  But three more probable cases were added to the list, bringing the total to 9.

Magnan expects more cases, including possible severe ones, but that there's no sign this outbreak is any worse than a typical flu season.

She also said the state will no longer test every suspected case, but only those that require hospitalization. So far, no such case has surfaced in Minnesota.

However, she said the state will continue to remain on alert, and cautioned schools, parents and employers to insist that anyone with fever, cough or other flu symptoms stay home. Meanwhile, the three affected districts remained cautious.

In Orono, the high school and all related activities are canceled for at least one more day while officials await word on whether a person connected with the school has the new flu virus.

But the district's middle school and two elementary schools will reopen today. Although the probable flu case is at the high school, the district closed all its schools Monday because they share a campus.

At Emerson Spanish Immersion School in Minneapolis, a probable case has yet to be confirmed, but parents learned Monday that the school will remain closed until at least Wednesday.

Staff members who haven't shown any symptoms over the weekend or Monday can return to school today. "There's a fine line between caution and overreaction, but I'd much rather have the authorities out in front of this than the other way around," said Emerson parent Vincent Hopwood.

In Cold Spring, the site of the state's only confirmed case, Rocori Middle School was scheduled to reopen today.

Many parents and students worried about the collateral effects of school closing for more than a day. In Orono, for example, the annual prom is Friday.

Maggie Sams, a senior at Orono High, is more concerned about missing her advanced placement tests this week. "Prom can be rescheduled, but if we miss our AP tests, we'll have to take the re-takes. And those are usually harder," she said.

Meanwhile, in a nearby Orono neighborhood, about a half-dozen boys gathered to toss a football. The district recommended that students stay home, but parent Tami Greiber said, "With 53 kids in the neighborhood, it's kind of hard to avoid congregating."

In the neighboring Wayzata School District, some parents were already making contingency plans should their children also wind up at home.

Wayzata parent Jane Marie Petty has already made arrangements for extra child care, even though she thinks closing schools is "overblown."

Starting today, the Health Department will ask schools to report their absentee rates daily, to see if there's any uptick in illness. Typically, schools report to the Health Department only if their absentee rates double during flu season.

Starting this week, the Health Department also began asking its network of "sentinel" clinics across the state to report cases of patients with flu-like symptoms on a daily basis, instead of weekly.

In addition, the Health Department added six retail clinics to its sentinel network. The six MinuteClinics -- in Southdale shopping center, Apple Valley, Plymouth, White Bear Lake, Coon Rapids and Brooklyn Center -- will receive special test kits from the department.

Staff writers Patrice Relerford and Chen May Yee contributed to this report.

 

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