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Swine Flu: Illinois Officials Prepare For Local Cases

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- As Illinois teachers watched for sick children, hospitals took extra precautions against germs and drug stores tried to keep surgical masks on the shelves, state health officials warned Monday that it's only a matter of time before swine flu emerges in Illinois.

With international airports and a significant immigrant population, state officials "fully expect" to see the disease surface here. But they say the severity of any outbreak can be reduced with medication and good hygiene.

"There's no need to panic at this point," said Dr. Damon Arnold, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The U.S. has declared a national health emergency amid concern about a flu virus that may be responsible for more than 1,995 illnesses and 149 deaths in Mexico. There are 40 confirmed cases in the U.S., where people complaining of harsher than normal cold symptoms tested positive for swine flu - many who recently visited Mexico.

So far, Illinois is free from swine flu. Seven people displaying symptoms were tested but turned out to be negative for the disease.

To guard against an outbreak, state officials are feeding constant flu updates to hospitals and medical providers and keeping tabs on the number of people reporting symptoms - especially in Latino neighborhoods.

Some hospitals are taking special precautions.

Security guards at all entrances to the University of Chicago Medical Center have started requiring anyone entering to use liquid hand disinfectant before proceeding inside, said spokesman John Easton said.

"We're watching this very carefully," Easton said.

Starting Monday, all patients seeking treatment for a fever, runny nose and coughs at Rush University Medical Center and its clinics will be tested for flu with nasal swabs. The Chicago hospital's lab will test each sample and all confirmed influenza cases will be sent to the Illinois Department of Public Health, where they'll be tested again to see if they match the swine flu strain, said Dr. Jamil Bayram, chairman of Rush's emergency preparedness committee.

So far, he said, there hasn't been a surge in the number of patients with those symptoms. "We have to take this very seriously," Bayram added.

Officials say anyone suffering from fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue should call their doctor and call in sick from school or work.

Illinois has a sufficient supply of drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza, which reduce the severity of the flu and help keep the virus from spreading, but the state will be getting additional supplies from the federal government's stockpile this week.

Arnold said the state is "over-prepared."

Now, more than ever, he says people should be trying to reduce the spread of germs by frequently washing hands, coughing into a tissue and avoiding contact with the eyes, nose and mouth.

Students at one school in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago were told not to shake hands and their parents will be asked questions when they call their children in sick.

"We are constantly enrolling students from Mexico and we have students that visit Mexico," said Coralia Barraza, the principal at Orozco Community Academy, a middle school. "If they have a fever, are coughing or sneezing, we are just informing parents before they decide to send students (back to school) to make sure a doctor says it's OK."

If a rash of students appear sick with the flu, officials said they would consider temporarily closing school. But for now, they'd rather parents keep sick children at home.

Swine flu affected Illinois colleges and universities as well. At the University of Illinois, swine flu concerns brought students Monday to the health center on the Urbana campus, Dr. Robert Palinkas said, though none showed symptoms of the illness. Prevention measures were publicized at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and health workers took inventory of surgical masks at Illinois State University in Bloomington.

Amtrak workers who notice worrisome symptoms resembling swine flu are notifying management, then deciding whether to ask the rider to leave the train. People flying in from Mexico at O'Hare International Airport are wearing surgical masks. And drug stores like Walgreen's are watching masks fly off the shelves.

Carol Clark of Barrington, said Monday as she departed O'Hare after arriving on a Mexicana flight that she's more worried about exposing her grandchildren than her own health.

"I'll think about it because I baby-sit my grandchildren," she said. "But I'm not worried."

Religious and community leaders in Chicago's Mexican neighborhoods worked Monday to educate residents, dispel rumors and calm fears about the outbreak.

The Mexican Consulate in Chicago prepared information fliers about the signs of swine flu and preventive measures people can take to avoid getting sick. Consulate officials planned to hand them out Monday.

"We're trying to stop people from panicking," said consulate spokesman Lino Santacruz Moctezuma.

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Associated Press Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner and Associated Press Writers Don Babwin, Karen Hawkins and Sophia Tareen in Chicago, Associated Press Writer David Mercer in Champaign and Associated Press Writer Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.

-ASSOCIATED PRESS

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