Southeastern Utah District Health Department Registered Nurse Brenda Rogers, left, vaccinated Janae Packard against whooping cough during a daylong clinic at Moab Family Medicine on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Moab Family Medicine vaccinated hundreds of local residents over the past week, with the help of health department officials and Moab Regional Hospital employees. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Public health officials and others are urging residents who have persistent coughs to seek medical help immediately, as the number of reported whooping cough cases in a month-long outbreak climbed last week to more than 20.

The county’s first significant outbreak of whooping cough – or pertussis – in eight years is largely centered around Grand County High School, where 14 students, three faculty members and an unspecified number of parents have been diagnosed with the highly contagious respiratory infection.

Southeastern Utah District Health Department Environmental Health Director Brady Bradford said the outbreak appears to be largely confined to the high school because more time has elapsed since students there were vaccinated against the disease.

“For the most part, our elementary school students and middle school students have recently completed vaccinations, so their protections are higher than they are for students at the high school,” he said.

Grand County Middle School and Moab Charter School have each reported a single case of pertussis, and school officials are working closely with the health department and local doctors to prevent it from spreading any further.

Between Friday, Nov. 18, and Tuesday, Nov. 22, hundreds of middle and high school students and family members flocked to a vaccination clinic at Moab Family Medicine, which offered free shots to those who were unable to afford them, thanks to Dr. Ken Williams.

“Moab Family Medicine played a huge role in vaccinating the community,” Moab Regional Hospital Infection Control Nurse Darci Miller said.

“(Williams) has been very active in getting the vaccine,” Bradford said.

Other local vaccine services are available on a walk-in basis at City Market’s pharmacy, or on Mondays and Wednesdays from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at the health department’s Moab office, 575 S. Kane Creek Blvd.

In an unusual contrast from the last local outbreak eight years ago, Bradford said that pertussis seems to be moving at a weaker pace among the people it infects.

“We have a lot of people who have the disease, but it doesn’t seem to be lasting as long,” Bradford said.

He credits that weaker pace to the higher number of vaccinations that infected people received years ago.

“At this point, it’s not protecting them completely, but it is giving them some relief from the severity of what could be,” he said.

Early symptoms of pertussis mimic common colds

Pertussis spreads through droplets in the air when infected people cough or sneeze. It typically begins with cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing fits, a low-grade fever and a mild cough.

Once a person is exposed, symptoms usually begin within seven to 10 days. But it can take up to three weeks before those symptoms materialize, and it is often not suspected or diagnosed until the more severe symptoms appear, and otherwise healthy adults and teenagers might not even know that they have pertussis.

After one to two weeks, the traditional symptoms of pertussis may appear and include fits of rapid coughs, followed by a high-pitched “whoop.”

Pertussis is generally treated with antibiotics, and officials say that early treatment is important. Treatment may make an infection less serious if it begins early, before coughing fits start.

Public health officials say that hand washing is one of the best protections against whooping cough; people should not touch their eyes or noses with unwashed hands.

People who have been diagnosed with the disease should stay home from work or school for five days from the start of their treatment, or three weeks after the cough begins.

Moab Regional Hospital has already donated masks to the high school to prevent the spread of the disease, and if residents are in a public space like a clinic where masks are widely available, Bradford said they shouldn’t hesitate to wear them.

Bradford said that residents can further limit the spread of the disease by routinely disinfecting “common areas,” such as doorknobs, phones and light switches.

Miller also touts the importance of proper hand-washing techniques and “good coughing etiquette,” such as coughing into one’s shoulder.

Like the school district, Miller said the hospital is “piggybacking” with the health department, doing whatever the district office needs it to do.

Miller said the facility keeps track of every pertussis case that comes through its lab, and forwards the results to the health department, which then tracks down every person with whom the patient has been in contact.

Bradford credits that collaborative approach to a successful response in the weeks since his department issued its first advisory about the outbreak.

“I feel like everybody ramped up quickly and responded to that notification really well,” he said.

The show goes on for high school, theatrical production

While the outbreak led the high school to postpone its fall production of “The Wizard of Oz” until next month, the school district isn’t expecting to take any more drastic action in the coming weeks.

“We don’t anticipate needing to close schools, and there is a possibility of the health department offering another clinic next week for high school and middle school students, parents and families,” Grand County School District Superintendent Scott Crane said.

Grand County School District Communications Specialist Laura Haley said that before the first case was reported this year, a number of high school students had vaccine exemptions.

However, after the second case was diagnosed, those students were given the option of getting the pertussis vaccine and continuing to attend classes, or staying home until 21 days after the last confirmed case is diagnosed. Most students opted to get the vaccine, she said.

Haley said the high school is making accommodations for any other students in order to minimize the impacts of the extended absence. For instance, students who may not be able to receive the vaccine due to medical issues may be allowed to attend classes “virtually” via their home computers, she said.

As students celebrate a break from school this week, Bradford reminds them to be careful if they’re planning to spend time around their family members, friends or neighbors over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“If you are sick, you want to take extra precautions so you’re not exposing your whole family, especially if you’re going to an area that hasn’t been exposed to this outbreak,” he said. “You could potentially be taking it into a community that doesn’t have (it).”

For Moab resident Janae Packard, the potential risk just wasn’t worth it.

One of Packard’s children is enrolled at Grand County Middle School, and two more attend Helen M. Knight Elementary. With several of them in tow, she went down to Moab Family Medicine on Tuesday morning, rolled up her sleeve and didn’t even wince as Registered Nurse Brenda Rogers gave her a quick shot of the vaccine.

“I kind of debated coming or not, but I feel good about it,” Packard said. “I heard that it’s a 180-day cough, and I’m just not interested in messing with that.”

20-plus cases reported in Grand County; officials recommend simple precautions to guard against infections

If you are sick, you want to take extra precautions so you’re not exposing your whole family, especially if you’re going to an area that hasn’t been exposed to this outbreak.