Chapel Hill elementary school back to normal following whooping cough cases

Orange County News

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – An outbreak of whooping cough at an elementary school led Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools administrators to send seven people home.

The Orange County Health Department confirmed cases of pertussis, commonly referred to as whooping cough, in six students and one teacher at Glenwood Elementary School. Tracy Sanders, the CHCCS nurse coordinator, said Health Department staff notified the school system that a student had a confirmed case.

“The nurse at Glenwood was aware of that first thing one morning, and she was sending kids home that very same day that had any type of cough, especially if it was severe or had any kind of fever,” Sanders said.

“The school nurse is working really closely with the health department and she’s monitoring kids for coughs, particularly if they are a severe cough, and in close contact with that first child who’s been diagnosed, and calling those parents and suggesting they follow up with their primary care physician.”

Sanders said a second grader was the first to get sick and spread their cough to classmates, a teacher, and at least one other student on a school bus, and a teacher. Some of the sick children received treatment and have already returned to school with doctor’s approval. 

“We’d like parents to be more cautious about sending their children to school if they’re having cold-like symptoms, running any type of fever or any type of cough,” she said.

Most children are vaccinated against whooping cough before they start school and receive a vaccination booster when they are in middle school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports pertussis vaccines as 80-90% effective.

Some adult shots for tetanus and diphtheria also include a pertussis booster, in the Tdap and DTaP vaccines, but there are also vaccines that leave out the pertussis part. Medical professionals recommend these shots every decade.

Dr. Gregory Mosteller, an emergency physician who also serves as medical director for UNC Rex Urgent Cares, said whooping cough usually starts out with similar symptoms to a cold or viral illness, despite being a bacterial infection.

“It can look like a common cold until it doesn’t,” Mosteller said.

“You may get a runny nose, you may have some low-grade fever and some mild cough, and that’s usually in the first couple of weeks so it can be mistook as just a regular cold,” he said.

“Then after that you go into the coughing fits. You cough so violently that you get all of the air out of your lungs, and then you take a deep breath to get air back in your lungs and it makes that classic whooping sound.”

Mosteller said that comes after a one or two week incubation period, and doctors hope to treat the illness with antibiotics within the first three weeks. He said most people’s symptoms subside and are no longer contagious after about four weeks.

Infants are most susceptible to severe symptoms.

“It’s most dangerous in young kids under 12 months, kids that aren’t fully vaccinated. They can have a high mortality and morbidity, and a lot of those kids may need to be admitted to the hospital,” Mosteller said.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spokesperson Jeff Nash said things are back to normal Glenwood Elementary. Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger visited classes Thursday morning.

It’s treatable with antibiotics.

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