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— Southwest Florida hospitals have stepped up monitoring of patients coming to emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms and will provide them with masks as a safety precaution even though no cases of swine flu have been reported in Florida.

Officials with the Collier and Lee health departments are in contact with local hospitals and physicians and recommend that patients with flu-like symptoms get a rapid test for flu if they traveled to one of the affected areas recently or were in contact with someone who has.

Officials at Lee Memorial Health System in Lee County which operate four hospitals in Lee, directed the emergency rooms to place patients with flu-like symptoms in a private waiting area, and if that’s not possible, to provide them with surgical masks, said Steve Streed, system director of epidemiology.

“Since we haven’t seen any cases here, we are at heightened awareness and alertness, we have been preparing for this for a long time,” Streed said. “We certainly have a very well fleshed out pandemic flu plan so we are really at the early stages of invoking that.”

The public needs to be mindful of respiratory etiquette of frequent hand-washing, covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing and staying home if you feel sick, said Deb Millsap, spokeswoman for the Collier health department.

Public health officials in both counties have been in touch with local school officials to be watchful for increases in student absenteeism. In Collier, the contact has included Edison College, Hodges University and private schools, Millsap said.

Some students at Gulfview Middle School in Naples reportedly traveled to Mexico recently but the health department has not received a report from that school, or any other school, of a spike in absenteeism, she said.

Anybody in the community who has flu-like symptoms is asked to see their local physician to be tested for flu if they have traveled to Mexico or California or have been in contact with someone who has, she said.

The test involves a nasal swab to determine if the illness is Influenza A or B but it will not diagnose swine flu; that needs to be done at a state laboratory in Tampa.

“We are monitoring the situation nationally and just watching those reports,” Millsap said. “We are taking it day by day at this point.”

The health department ordered 800 doses of the antiviral medication tamiflu for adults, 80 pediatric doses and 20 infant doses, she said.

Dr. Joan Colfer, executive director of the Collier health department, will brief the Collier County Commission on Tuesday about what precautionary efforts have been taken.

In Florida, public health officials at the county level were given the directive several years ago to develop pandemic flu preparedness response plans. Officials in Collier starting putting together its plan as far back as 2000 and added a bio-terrorism element after Sept. 11.

Lee Memorial has not ordered any more tamiflu because it has a substantial stock of it right now, Streed said.

Patients with flu-like symptoms coming into the emergency rooms at Physicians Regional Medical Center at Pine Ridge and Collier Boulevard campuses also are being given surgical masks and tissues, which is part of the hospital system’s standard guidelines during the normal flu season, said Dee Hawks, director of epidemiology for Physicians Regional.

“We do that throughout our entire influenza season,” she said. “We’ve just picked up those efforts a little more.”

Dr. Judith Hartner, executive director of the Lee health department, said Lee Memorial’s decision to provide masks to patients with flu-like symptoms or isolate them from other patients is part of the hospital system’s pandemic flu plan and is a good practice.

“We didn’t specifically ask for it,” Hartner said. “We think it’s a good idea.

“The word to the public, I believe, is be vigilant, be aware, know that this is happening,” she said, adding that hand-washing and avoiding people who are sick is important.

Physicians are calling to inquire as to what they should do, mostly at walk-in clinics, and they are being told to save any positive screening for influenza to send to the state lab, she said.

The Lee health department has not ordered any tamiflu and doesn’t have any in stock, she said.

“There is not a shortage so it is available at pharmacies and hospitals,” Hartner said.

The state health department has a tamiflu stock and is working with the CDC on releasing it but she hasn’t heard yet how it will be distributed.

“We had a conference call (Monday) and they said they are working on the distribution stream,” Hartner said.

Dr. Jorge Quinonez, at Family Health Center in Fort Myers, said the swine flu cases in the United States are different than those in Mexico because there have been no deaths or hospitalizations in the U.S.

“It’s not likely to be any more severe than typical flu cases we get in flu season,” he said. “The deaths in Mexico have fed into a panic but we need more information. The most important thing is for physicians to stay informed and do not feed into the fear.”

The NCH Healthcare System, which operates NCH Downtown Naples and North Naples hospitals, is watching patients and their symptoms and reviewing plans, said spokeswoman Debbie Curry.

“The NCH emergency departments have not experienced an increase in patient visits (Monday),” she said. “Nasal swab testing takes place on a daily basis throughout the year, especially during flu season. We continue to do this testing when appropriate, but have not seen an increase in recent days.”

Curry also said masks are used when appropriate but because there has not been a significant increase in patients with symptoms, the number of masks being used remains normal.

CLICK HERE for a Google map pinpointing suspected and confirmed swine flu cases in the U.S.

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