A Cold Spring patient with a mild case of the flu became the center of the state's attention Wednesday, as officials announced that the swine flu has apparently arrived in Minnesota.
The news prompted officials to send a team of health investigators to central Minnesota, close two schools and an adjacent senior citizens center and step up efforts to limit the spread of a virus that is rapidly sweeping the globe.
In Geneva, the World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its pandemic alert to its second-highest level. The action means that a global epidemic is believed imminent, although experts are unsure how dangerous it may be. So far, the vast majority of cases outside Mexico have been mild.
State officials said the first Minnesota patient, someone with links to Rocori Middle School, is recovering without incident.
But state and local officials wasted little time responding to the news. Gov. Tim Pawlenty held a news conference Wednesday morning to announce the first "probable" case, and said he had ordered the state's airplane to ferry the patient's specimen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for testing.
Late Wednesday, health officials said there was a "95 percent chance" that tests will confirm that it is the new strain of swine flu, although they were still awaiting results.
Meanwhile, school officials temporarily shut down the school, as well as a nearby Catholic school that shares some of its facilities, as a precaution.
In Cold Spring, many residents were taking the news in stride. Apart from some anxious phone calls from parents of children with special medical conditions, school officials said local families did not seem worried. "We're on top of it about as well as we can be,'' said Mike Austreng, a school board member and publisher of the weekly Cold Spring Record. "If we need to take more action, we will.''
Patient not identified
As cases of swine flu spread throughout the nation -- surging to nearly 100 Wednesday -- there was still no answer as to how much danger the virus may pose. In Mexico, more than 150 deaths are suspected to have been the result of the new flu strain, and the first U.S. death was reported Wednesday, involving a Mexican toddler who was visiting Texas with his family.
In Minnesota, health officials were purposely vague about the state's first apparent victim, who was not identified by name.
Her case first came to light this week, when she sought medical care near Cold Spring. A health-care provider forwarded a specimen from her to St. Paul, as state officials have asked. Hers was one of 72 specimens the state has received for testing so far.
About 10 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty got a phone call from Chief of Staff Matt Kramer, saying that the Health Department had identified a possible swine flu case in Cold Spring.
At midnight, the governor called Rocori Superintendent Scott Staska to break the news that his middle school might have the state's first case of swine flu. A little after midnight, state Health Commissioner Sanne Magnan called Sister Sharon Waldoch, principal of Cold Spring's St. Boniface. Officials at both schools agreed to cancel Wednesday's classes.
By 1:30 a.m. the state's King Air turbo plane was wheels up from the St. Paul Downtown Airport, bound for Atlanta. Its cargo? A single tube containing the patient's specimen, bagged and placed in a cooler, escorted by a Health Department staff member. CDC officials met the plane at 5:45 a.m. and took the specimen to their labs, where samples from around the country have been arriving all week.
Health officials weren't sure Wednesday how the Cold Spring patient became infected. But she apparently had contact with someone who had traveled to Mexico, the epicenter of the current outbreak. In this case, the patient's symptoms were no different from those seen during a normal flu season, and she was not hospitalized, Magnan said.
Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, said the risk to other students and staff at Rocori was low because the patient had not been at the school when she was most infectious.
Nor was there any sign that other schools have been affected. "We have not seen any increases in outbreaks at schools," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the Minnesota Department of Health. The department tracks potential flu outbreaks in schools and nursing homes, and so far, this has been the quietest flu season in three years.
No rise in absent students
Meanwhile, school nurses in Minneapolis, St. Paul and other districts said they have seen no rise in absenteeism. "We're not seeing lots of kids out sick, or lots of kids out because parents are afraid to send them to school," said Cindy Hiltz, the health service coordinator at Anoka-Hennepin schools. "As of today, at least."
The Anoka-Hennepin district was notifying principals and parents by letter and automated phone calls to watch for sick kids, and was telling parents to keep them home from school. Minneapolis and St. Paul school officials said they were preparing letters or automated phone calls in four languages to notify families about flu risks.
Also Wednesday, the list of Minnesota colleges cancelling study abroad to Mexico grew longer. The University of Minnesota, Duluth, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Concordia College in Moorhead all said they have called off planned programs because of concerns about swine flu. Concordia College has canceled plans to send 13 students to Mexico City next week, after learning that colleges and universities there were "basically locked down by the government," said Per Anderson, chairman of the college's division of global education.
Businesses, too, were taking extra precautions. Target Corp., which has 146 stores in Texas and 62 in New York, two of the states with multiple swine flu cases, has been reviewing its pandemic response plan. It's also making sure it has enough flu prescriptions, masks and hand sanitizers to meet demand, said spokeswoman Amy Reilly.
3M, which has 1,500 employees in Texas and 300 in New York, is providing updates on its internal websites, said spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry. Also, the company has noted a "significant" increase in sales of its N95 respirators, and is boosting production, Berry said.
Staff writers Jenna Ross, Pat Lopez, Warren Wolfe and Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384 Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394