Six confirmed whooping cough cases have been reported in Douglas County this month, including three this week, but officials say there is no need to panic.
Although a few cases are reported each year during flu season, Douglas County health officer Kathy Ronchi said the sudden influx raised concern. The health department reached out to the Superior School District to warn parents, as the cases involved school-aged children who attend Superior schools.
“We have cases every year, but what was concerning this time was getting three in one week ... (We’re) just trying to give people a heads up, so they can try to avoid spreading it,” she said.
District Health Coordinator Brynn Larrabbee alerted parents via email Wednesday, Jan. 22 that students at Superior High School and Superior Middle School may have been exposed to whooping cough.
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious disease caused by bacteria that attaches to the lining of the lungs and bronchial tubes. For the first week, symptoms mimic a cold — low grade fever, runny nose. When those symptoms clear up, the cough remains.
“Pertussis is that coughing fit that takes your breath away,” Ronchi said. “In very small children, they can turn blue. It’s coughing until you throw up. You could have this cough that lasts a minute.”
A person with whooping cough can remain contagious for two months if not treated with antibiotics, Ronchi said. They’re contagious from the outset of the disease and can spread it through droplets of saliva every time they cough or sneeze.
Those most at risk are young children who are not fully immunized and have smaller airways. The last major whooping cough outbreak in Wisconsin was in 2012. More than 6,000 confirmed cases were reported and three infants died, Ronchi said.
The best defense is vaccination, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Children need five doses of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine by the age of 6. They should get a booster shot at age 11 or 12. Pregnant women should receive a booster shot during each pregnancy and all adults should have gotten at least one.
Whooping cough tends to hit children from ages 10-14 because they need the booster shot, Ronchi said. Adults in their 40s and older may be at higher risk, as well, because the booster shot wasn’t required when they were children.
People can find out their vaccine status by contacting their doctor or the Douglas County Health Department. The health department can check vaccine records from Wisconsin and Minnesota, Ronchi said.
It isn’t too late to get vaccinated, even though it can take a couple weeks for immunity to build up.
Those who have been vaccinated should watch for symptoms, as they can still contract the illness.
Universal precautions when cold symptoms appear form a second line of defense.
“That’s your body fighting something, so pay attention to that and cover your cough and disinfect, wash your hands and do all those things in that week, because you don’t know what it will turn into,” Ronchi said.
All that being said, people who experience cold symptoms shouldn’t automatically head to the doctor.
“We don’t want everyone to be panicking,” Ronchi said. “If you can identify that it’s these coughing fits, that’s what’s different.”
The county will continue to track cases of whooping cough.
Influenza and coronavirus
Seven Douglas County residents have been hospitalized with confirmed influenza this month, Ronchi said. The number of cases is similar to what was reported last year during the same time period.
“I would say every day we get reports of hospitalized people,” Ronchi said. “And it tends to be the elderly (age 65 and older).”
Wisconsin has had 15 flu-related deaths so far this season, including one pediatric death. None have been in Douglas County.
Flu season tends to peak the end of January into the beginning of February, Ronchi said. As with whooping cough, the best way to prevent flu is with vaccination.
“It’s still not too late for a flu shot,” she said.
The Douglas County Health Department has also been fielding calls from people who are concerned because they know someone with coronavirus. Like influenza, coronavirus is a group of viruses with multiple strains.
“We have people in Wisconsin with various strains of coronavirus,” Ronchi said. “It is not the same as what is happening in China.”
The CDC is closely monitoring the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China that has reportedly affected thousands and caused dozens of deaths. Confirmed cases of that strain of coronavirus have been reported in 13 additional countries, including five confirmed cases in the U.S., according to the CDC. They include people from Arizona, California, Illinois and Washington who were travelers from Wuhan, China, where the disease was first detected.
The risk to the American public is believed to be low, but the CDC encouraged people to take simple daily precautions, such as covering your cough, washing your hands and staying home when you’re actively sick.
This story was updated Jan. 27 to include information about influenza in Wisconsin and the new coronavirus outbreak in China.
This story was updated at 2:26 p.m. on Jan. 24 to reflect the total number of whooping cough cases reported in Douglas County. It was originally posted at 12:53 p.m. on Jan. 24.