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State H1N1 hotline plan gets local attention

Minnesota health officials are developing an H1N1 influenza information hotline, and some of the details surprised Washington County commissioners who were briefed on the project.

The Minnesota Health Department is finalizing a toll-free hotline that citizens could turn to with questions about the flu. Health professionals would staff the hotline, giving out flu information and referring ill callers to health care providers.

A tight timeline to get the hotline in place and its cost caught the attention of county Commissioners Myra Peterson of Cottage Grove and Gary Kriesel, whose district includes Afton. They attended a recent regional emergency services meeting where the hotline was discussed. The hotline was an agenda topic because it could help reduce 911 calls regarding H1N1 that are not emergencies.

The Health Department has not introduced the hotline publicly, but may get it in place within a few weeks. It could cost $2.5 million and is funded with a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant to the state, according to local officials informed of the plan.

"It just seems like a daunting challenge to have this in place in three weeks," Kriesel said in an interview.

Peterson said local officials were told the Health Department expects 100,000 hotline calls. Simple math suggests a high-priced program, she said.

"At $25 a call, I had a little problem," Peterson said at a Tuesday County Board meeting.

The Health Department still is working out hotline details, so cannot estimate the cost to operate it or discuss details of how it will work and who will answer calls, agency spokesman John Stieger said today.

Kriesel said he is appreciates health officials setting up the hotline. He just questions the ambitious timeline.

"God bless them for getting ahead of the curve ball," Kriesel said. "It's better to be moving forward like that than waiting for something like (Hurricane) Katrina to hit."

As H1N1 cases grow across the state, the Health Department is trying to inform residents in many ways, including a phone hotline, Stieger said.

"We just basically are concerned that there will be both a huge demand for information as well as possible significant demands on the health care system," he said, "so we're looking at a range of strategies to try to get information out to people."

Washington County's top health official said a statewide H1N1 hotline would be helpful.

The hotline could deter sick people who do not need treatment from showing up in clinics and hospitals, Public Health Director Lowell Johnson said. That surge in flu-stricken visitors can cause problems for people seeking treatment for other ailments.

"We'd like to, as much as possible, keep the ill patients away from the patients who don't have the flu yet," he said.

Washington County Public Health has not been burdened by H1N1 phone calls, but that may change, Johnson said.