Whooping cough is diagnosed at new site

A third case of the lung disease is reported at Russell Elementary.
Wednesday, May 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Despite a letter campaign conducted by the Columbia Public School District and the Boone County Health Department urging students and staff to take antibiotics, a new case of whooping cough has been diagnosed in a Columbia school.

The latest case was identified by the Health Department at Russell Boulevard Elementary on Monday, said Darlene Huff, nurse coordinator for the school district.

Heather Baer, spokeswoman for the Health Department, was out of the office Tuesday. Health Department employees would not comment on the new case of whooping cough or what precautions the department intends to take. Russell Boulevard administrators also could not be reached for comment. “We’re all going as fast as we can to make sure the notifications get out to everyone that needs them,” Huff said. “Those getting the letter are those identified as close contacts by the Health Department. We want to be responsible about this and make sure the situation doesn’t get out of hand.”

It’s the third diagnosed case of whooping cough in a Columbia school in a week. On May 11, one student at Grant Elementary School and one student at Smithton Middle School were diagnosed with the contagious respiratory disease, prompting administrators to send letters home with students. Since the initial identification, Huff said a “considerable” number of letters have been sent, though it’s hard to know an exact number. However, these letters are drawing criticism from some parents.

“I was slightly offended by the tone of the letter,” said David Williamson, whose daughter is a sixth-grader at Smithton. “It seems they could have done it in a way that showed concern for our children, rather than treating it like a pronouncement from on high.”

The letter said any student who is not treated with antibiotics “will not be allowed to return to school for 21 days.” With only 11 days left in the school year, the penalty would cause students in violation of the request to miss all remaining days of class.

Craig Martin, assistant principal at Smithton, said the letters are produced by the Health Department, which tells the school when to distribute the letters.

“They wrote the letters,” he said. “We copied them and sent them out.”

Martin said students who may have been exposed have been allowed to come to school for one day without the vaccination because the administrators realize the logistical problem — by the time the student comes home with the letter, many doctor’s offices are closed.

When the first cases were identified last week, general information letters were sent home with all students at the two schools, and the second, more specific letter was sent with students who had close contact to infected students.

Martin said the letters sent Monday at Smithton were meant as a follow-up with students the administration learned had been in close contact with infected students. It was the same letter that had been sent last week.

Williamson said he received the general information letter last week and then received the other letter Monday without any notification as to why the message had changed.

The mandate frustrated Williamson.

“I’m putting (my daughter) on antibiotics when she’s not sick, which, from what I’ve read, will build up her tolerance to such drugs,” Williamson said. “To add injury to insult, it costs me $65 in addition to the inconvenience.”

For families who are unable to afford the antibiotics, Huff said the Health Department will help.

“Most of the adults or children who have problems (paying for the medicine) may already be eligible for Medicaid or Medicare,” Huff said. “We are connecting them to those resources when we come across those situations — if they’re not already connected. Most have some form of insurance.”

Not all parents are frustrated by the procedures the school district implemented.

“They are trying to contain a highly infectious disease, and the circle of kids keeps getting larger,” said Laura Brennan, Parent/Teacher/Student Association president at Smithton. “It’s just one of those things that happens and you have to deal with it to make sure everyone stays healthy.”

Williamson agrees with keeping everyone healthy, but he’s not sure the district and the Health Department are going about it in the best way.

“I feel like they could have kept the public better informed without going into panic mode,” Williamson said.

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