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Flu pandemic could kill 30,000 in Minnesota

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Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told a gathering of health professionals in Minnesota Wednesday that all levels of government must prepare to respond to a flu pandemic -- the federal government can't do it all. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Federal health officials gave a grim assessment Wednesday of what would happen if a flu pandemic strikes Minnesota. They estimate 1.5 million Minnesotans would get sick and 30,000 would die. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt came to St. Paul to discuss preparations for a possible pandemic.

St. Paul, Minn. — Leavitt says Minnesota was chosen as the first stop in his nationwide tour because the state has a strong public health system. But he says all officials need to do more to get ready for a possible outbreak.

Federal estimates say 30,000 Minnesotans would die if the worst form of a pandemic flu came true. They say 750,000 people would seek health care in Minnesota, and 165,000 of them would need hospitalization.

Even though these numbers are massive, Leavitt says state and local officials shouldn't look to the federal government for help, especially if there other pandemic hot spots pop up across the country.

Any state, any community, any citizen that failed to prepare, assuming that the federal government could take care of them during a pandemic, would be tragically wrong.
- HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt

"Any state, any community, or for that matter any citizen that failed to prepare -- assuming that the federal government could take care of them during a pandemic -- would be tragically wrong," said Leavitt.

Health officials are raising concerns about a possible flu pandemic because a deadly strain of bird flu is spreading across Asia and Europe.

The virus rarely transfers from birds to humans, but health officials worry it could mutate and start spreading from human to human. If that happens it could cover the globe and overwhelm the health care system.

Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, says the federal government is stockpiling medicine, ramping up vaccine research and increasing disease surveillance to prepare for an outbreak.

But those measures could be years off. If a pandemic occurred soon, Gerberding says local officials would have to handle a massive outbreak on their own.

"These decisions can't just be made in Atlanta or Washington, or at any other federal level. In many cases, it would be hard to make them at the state level," said Gerberding. "These kind of decisions are exactly what Secretary Leavitt was talking about. These are the decisions that we have to make as communities."

Gerberding says Minnesota's strong public health system is more prepared than other states. The Minnesota Health Department has been planning for a pandemic since 1999. The plan would close schools, businesses and other public gathering areas in the event of a massive outbreak.

Some of the estimates are sobering. If the worst-case scenario occurred, the department estimates there would only be one licensed hospital bed available for every 10 Minnesotans who would need one. Officials also warned that hospital workers, government officials and other workers may stay home from work.

Hennepin County Emergency Preparedness Director Tim Turnbull says some estimates say up to 40 percent of the workforce may choose to stay home and care for loved ones, instead of going to work.

"We better understand what's really important in our government, and what has to happen, and how we can operate with a a minimum number of people in those functions," Turnbull said.

Some business leaders and government officials say state and local governments need to decide which essential services should continue if travel and trade are restricted.

Others worry they may not have enough staff to treat their residents, and others who choose to relocate to their counties.

Sandy Tubbs, the public health nursing director in Douglas County, says it's possible that Twin Cities residents may think it's best to seek protection and isolation at their lake homes. If all of those residents make the trip, Tubbs says the population of Douglas County would triple.

"We have joked around that we are going to put out the message that if you decide to come to your lake home in Douglas County, you're going to have to bring your own caregiver -- because we do not have enough caregivers," Tubbs said.

Others are calling on state and federal officials to dedicate more money to local public health agencies. They say they need more money, training and workers to prepare for an outbreak.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he plans to devote more money for pandemic flu preparedness when he releases his supplemental budget in a few months.

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