Pertussis forces public health balancing act
Oneida County Health Department considers students, staff and community in school recommendation
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
Despite pleas from parents and coaches, the School District of Rhinelander will stick with the health department recommendation to keep schools closed and extra-curricular activities cancelled until students return to classes Jan. 2, due to an increase of the respiratory disease pertussis.
“This is absolutely going to destroy everything a varsity program does in an entire year.” Derek Lemmens, RHS varsity boys basketball coach
At Monday night’s Rhinelander school board meeting, Oneida County health professionals explained to board members and an audience of largely unhappy parents and coaches what went into their recommendation on Dec. 16.
“There are statutory laws that tell us not only what we can do, but what we must do,” said Oneida County Health Department Director, Linda Conlon. “We realize there has to be a balance between education and sports and health and wellness of our community. The health department will always err on the side of health and wellness. That’s our job.”
OCHD nurse Rob Deede explained that pertussis, also known as whooping cough, begins with cold-like symptoms, with a cough that continues to get worse. Vaccinations are making identifying and diagnosing pertussis more difficult, because the symptoms are not as severe, but the patients are just as contagious. Additionally, there can be a long incubation period before symptoms begin.
“The health department will always err on the side of health and wellness. That’s our job.” Linda Conlon, OCHD Director
“After you are exposed to someone contagious, there is up to a 21-day incubation period,” Deede said. “So, three weeks you could potentially be brewing pertussis before you become contagious. Seven days leading up to the cough you are contagious and once you start coughing you are contagious for [another two to three weeks] or after five days of antibiotics.”
It was the number of sick students and staff, a depleted substitute pool, and the fact that ill teachers were reporting to school because they couldn’t find a sub that prompted the Dec. 16 recommendation to close the schools, Conlon said, adding that the illness had impacted a residential facility and a day care in the community as well. School nurse Kerri Schmidt said her office at the high school started looking like a clinic when she saw dozens of ill students between Dec. 14 and Dec. 16, with an absentee rate of just over 20 percent by 2:30 p.m., Dec. 16.
“We started hearing from concerned parents asking, ‘what are you going to do about this’,” said Schmidt. “We have to be concerned about students or staff on chemotherapy or are immune suppressed, pregnant students and staff. When people send their kids to school, the one expectation they have is that they will be safe.”
Parent Shannon Comer, whose son is on the varsity basketball team, told the group she is looking for solutions, and suggested that the coaches and student athletes could all go on antibiotics as a precautionary measure.
“The thing is, they’re still gonna go out, they’re still gonna to go Walmart, the gas station, they are still going to be out in the community,” Comer said. “It’s a no-win situation.”
“There is a difference between being in the community and being with your team,” Conlon responded. “When they start coughing, it’s seven days too late. We feel that if they continue practicing they won’t break that cycle. It’s our recommendation, and it’s our field of expertise.”
Varsity boys basketball coach Derek Lemmens asked the health department help “salvage” the winter break by reconsidering the 17-day cancellation recommendation.
“This is absolutely going to destroy everything a varsity program does in an entire year,” Lemmens said. “If they started after Christmas, that’s a 10-day window that these kids are not congregating. [This break is] so important for everything these kids have worked their tails off for, starting over the summer, starting their entire athletic careers.”
Conlon said they would take Lemmens’ comment and those of other coaches and parents into consideration. Deede told the audience that the department is still trying to get on top of the illness, and reminded those in attendance that as a public health organization, they serve the entire county.
“We worked with the school to give a recommendation for the best possible public health intervention,” he said. “Student athletics was taken second when the health of the community at large was put first and foremost.”
Representatives of OCHD and the school district met Dec. 20 to review the research, data and input from local providers, and in the end confirmed the decision to close schools and cancel all extra-curricular activities, including practices.
The health department issued a written statement, saying “although we recognize the impact this has had on the sports teams, the congregation of teams is proven by research to impede public health measures put in place to break the chain of communicability.” School District of Rhinelander classes resume Jan. 2.