BILLINGS – State health officials say as of Monday they had no confirmed swine flu cases in Montana but are gathering medical supplies as a precaution.
The state medical officer, Dr. Steve Helgerson, says he would “be very surprised” if Montana avoids the virus altogether. But he tempered that warning by stressing that most infected patients in the United States to date have become only mildly ill.
“It’s an influenza virus and I can’t think of the last time there was an influenza season in the United States and it didn’t happen in Montana,” he said.
In a telephone conference call with reporters, Helgerson characterized the symptoms seen so far in the United States as mild. “The headlines tend to emphasize the term swine influenza. The really important part of that is influenza,” he added.
No deaths from the swine flu have been reported in the United States. At least 149 deaths in Mexico have been tied to the virus.
Health officials are working closely with physicians throughout the state to identify flu-like illness. They’re asking doctors who see patients with flu symptoms to collect a specimen, and send it to the Department of Public Health and Human Services laboratory in Helena.
Helgerson says specimens will be tested at the lab for certain known, or ‘typeable,’ influenza strains. But if test results show an unknown strain, the specimen would be sent to the CDC for further testing to determine if it is swine flu.
No specimens have been sent to the CDC yet.
With 40 confirmed cases in the U.S., officials are warning Americans about traveling to Mexico. Cases have been confirmed in California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas.
To prepare for an outbreak in Montana, the CDC is sending the state a stockpile of medicine and protective equipment sufficient to treat and care for 25,000 infected people.
The medicine, which state officials said will arrive within the next week, includes commercial flu treatments such as Tamiflu and Relenza. The protective equipment includes gloves and masks that would be worn by caregivers.
Until the swine flu threat ends, state officials said people should take the same basic precautions as they would with any other flu outbreak. That includes covering the nose and mouth when coughing, frequent hand washing, avoiding contact with sick people and, for those who get sick, to stay home from work or school.
“We at the department need to be prepared, but we also want to be sure people don’t panic,” said DPHHS director Anna Whiting Sorrell.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.