HAMILTON – With a whooping cough outbreak showing no signs of slowing, the Ravalli County Public Health Department has taken the unprecedented action of ordering more than 100 non-immunized students to stay home from school for three weeks in an attempt to stop the spread.
“I’ve been working here for 21 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Ravalli County public health nurse Judy Griffin. “I’ll admit this is the worst outbreak we’ve ever seen.”
On Sunday night, Ravalli County public health officer Carol Calderwood made the decision to order any student who had an immunization exemption, whether for religious or medical reasons, to stay home for 21 days.
The Corvallis School District told about 100 students that they can’t come to school and must refrain from all school activities, including sports. The Victor School District gave 15 students the same notice.
There are now 22 confirmed cases of whooping cough (officially known as pertussis) in the county, including 19 children and three adults. At least one infant was hospitalized, but Griffin said the child appears to be making a recovery.
Corvallis School District Superintendent Monte Silk said the students, coaches, staff and teachers in the district are all handling the situation as best they can under the circumstances.
“We’re hanging in there,” he said. “It was a very difficult decision, but it was a good decision and we support it. Parents are certainly struggling with this because education is No. 1, and we are struggling with this as well. It just slows everything down. But if the top public health doctor says stay home, we will comply. They have been great to work with.”
Silk said the district is providing study and test materials for the students to take home, and teachers are working on long-distance lesson plans.
Victor School Superintendent Lance Pearson said that of the 15 students who must stay home, 14 were exempt from immunization for religious reasons.
“The one student that had a medical exemption because he was allergic to the immunization was highly involved in track,” Pearson said. “That was really tough on him. The parents have been very understanding. But it’s a major concern of ours to make sure none of these kids fall behind in their schoolwork.”
The whooping cough outbreak began two weeks ago at the Pines Academy in Pinesdale, a parochial elementary school. Ten students there came down with the illness, and the school closed for a week. Since then, the outbreak has spread to both the Corvallis and Victor school districts.
Pearson said most of the parents of students who had religious exemptions were highly receptive to the idea of getting their children immunized.
“It’s being done for the protection of their kids,” he said. “Quite a few of them said they were going to get the shots. But even if they went in yesterday and got immunized, it would still be two weeks before they could come back to school, because it takes that long to build antibodies.”
Not all of the confirmed whooping cough cases are in people without immunization, according to Griffin.
“You can get whooping cough if you have been immunized, but to much less of a degree,” she said. “It can be deadly, especially in infants. We are trying to build up that herd immunity, where we have large portions of the population that are immunized so things like this don’t happen.”
Griffin said this is only the second time in the history of the state that students have been ordered to stay home from school. Last fall, officials in Gallatin County were forced to do the same thing because of a whooping cough outbreak there.
“One plus side is schools are all looking at immunization records, and parents are looking into immunization,” Griffin said. “We are hoping to prevent another wave, but this could spread out to other schools.”
Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. The bacteria are spread by contact with the respiratory droplets from an infected person through coughing.
The disease starts like the common cold, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and possible mild cough or fever. But after one or two weeks, severe coughing can begin. The Tdap vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.
For more information, call the Ravalli County Public Health Department at 375-6670.
Reporter David Erickson can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.