The Minnesota Health Department is turning to crowdsourcing as a way to learn more about the spread of flu and other respiratory illnesses, in a pilot project that includes digital mapping and test kits for volunteers.

In partnership with a smartphone-based app and website called Flu Near You, state health officials are seeking volunteers who are willing to send in a nasal swab when they develop typical flu symptoms such as fever, fatigue, chills and night sweats.

Minnesota is one of two states to test the concept, which will build on the seven years of experience that Flu Near You has in collecting reports of symptoms from the general public.

Flu Near You participants get a weekly e-mail from the nonprofit organization asking if they have any flu-like symptoms and if they have gotten a flu shot. These anonymous reports are then displayed on an online map.

The Minnesota pilot project goes one step further. Volunteers will receive a kit of nasal swabs from the state when they sign up. If they get sick, they're asked to take a sample and mail it to the Health Department laboratory, which will run a battery of tests for influenza and several other respiratory infections that produce similar symptoms.

"That will give us a picture of what is going on with respiratory illnesses around the state right now," said Melissa McMahon, an epidemiologist with the Health Department. "There are illnesses that circulate that look like flu but are different from influenza."

Those other illnesses are often referred to as the common cold, but they can be caused by a variety of viruses, including rhinoviruses, coronaviruses and adenoviruses, which can develop into serious illnesses and are valuable for the department to monitor.

Under Minnesota's current flu surveillance system, hospitals and clinics send samples to the state's laboratory for flu testing when patients come in with flu symptoms, but for the most part the state doesn't test for the presence of other viruses. "We get a very high volume of samples, and [running] that many tests for that many viruses would be unwieldy both for staffing and for budgets," McMahon said.

The effort also extends the reach of the state's illness monitoring because many people don't go to the doctor for treatment when they get sick.

The pilot program is supported by grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

"We are really interested to see if our data, which is more crowdsourced, can be confirmed with lab testing," said Kara Sewalk, program coordinator for HealthMap, which oversees Flu Near You.

About 1,600 Minnesotans participate with Flu Near You, and so far 81 have volunteered to take nasal swabs, with recruitment just getting underway.

Participants will not receive lab results for the nasal swabs they submit, but they will get the satisfaction of advancing medical research, Sewalk said.

"People who sign up are interested in public health," she said. "We like to label them as citizen scientists."

If the pilot program shows promise, it might be renewed for the next flu season.

In Minnesota, flu season is winding down. Cases are still turning up in most regions of the state, according to the Health Department's weekly update on Thursday, but the number of hospitalizations has fallen substantially since reaching a high in January. The percent of visits to clinics with influenza-like symptoms has fallen by half since it peaked in mid-February.

The flu pilot project is not the only example of Minnesota's general public helping the Health Department. Nearly 40 percent of callers to the agency's foodborne illness hotline voluntarily submit stool samples when requested. Residents have also participated in studies on arsenic in wells and viruses in groundwater.

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192