NewsMissoula County


Western Montana health, school officials work to contain pertussis outbreak

Posted at 12:10 PM, May 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-01 14:10:18-04

MISSOULA – Some parents in Western Montana are wondering if their child is going to come down with pertussis — better known as whooping cough.

Health officials report that the number of cases in Missoula County is continuing to increase.

Both health and school officials say they are concerned with how fast the disease has moved through the community in a short amount of time.

Confirmed cases of pertussis or whooping cough have more than doubled in Missoula County since last week and has affected everyone from adults to the children as young as four years old.

“On Friday night the numbers in that outbreak doubled from seven to 14 confirmed cases and [we are] investigating for contact — so looking for people who have been exposed to those cases so they can be notified and take precautions — those numbers are approaching 500 contacts right now,” said Missoula City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy.

Pertussis is very contagious, often going airborne and infecting an unsuspecting person. Since it spreads so quickly,  health officials are trying to identify people who have been in contact with an infected person.

“This is a respiratory disease. So, it’s spread by respiratory droplets — so sneezing, coughing. A contact is basically defined by someone who spent enough time in close enough range to the contagious person,” Leahy explained.

“And for this disease, that’s about a three-foot zone, so you could see [if] desks are within a three-foot zone — and an hour [of] accumulative time — so you get a lot of that type of exposure in an institutional setting,” she added.

Missoula County Public Schools already have had confirmed cases and are working with local health officials to keep whooping cough from further spreading.

“We are informed by the health department of a student carrying any kind of disease that we need to be concerned about,” MCPS spokeswoman Hatton Littman said.

“They notify us and then they have a very formal procedure — which we basically [work] together to identify who might be in the pool that would be affected by that individual — whether its a staff member or a student.”

“They need to be interviewed to see if they have symptoms and they need to be referred to a doctor to either get tested or potentially to just get preventative antibiotics just in case,” she added.

The Florence Carlton School District is also dealing with a pertussis outbreak and have been working with the Ravalli County Health Department to contain it.

“We sent 20 kids home and so then we are going to continue to do that process of elimination of who’s been exposed — who has had direct contact,” Florence Schools Superintendent Bud Scully told MTN News.

“We have actually had a staff member who was exposed We are going to continue to follow the protocol and follow the processing. Testing kids and sending letters home and making those recommendations. And that’s how we will continue going forward is that.”

“The health department nurses were just up at our school helping our nurse get everything taken care of and do the testing and we will just continue with that process,” Scully said.

Local health officials stress that it is crucial to get tested as soon as you are feeling symptoms. If not treated early enough, the disease can linger much longer than it would when you treat it immediately.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a type of bacteria. It can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than a year old.

Pertussis symptoms can appear differently and be less severe in vaccinated individuals, but can still be contagious.


  • Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After coughing fits, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a “whooping” sound.
  • Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within 5 to 10 days after you are exposed. Sometimes pertussis symptoms do not develop for as long as 3 weeks.
    Early Symptoms
  • The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. In babies, the cough can be minimal or nonexistent.
  • Early symptoms can last for 1 to 2 weeks and usually include runny nose, low-grade fever, mild, occasional cough, or Apnea – a pause in breathing (in babies)
  • Pertussis in its early stages appears to be nothing more than the common cold.

Later-stage Symptoms

  • After 1 to 2 weeks and as the disease progresses, the traditional symptoms of pertussis may appear and include fits of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound, throwing up during or after coughing fits, and exhaustion.

Pertussis in Babies

  • It is important to know that many babies with pertussis don’t cough at all. Instead it causes them to stop breathing and turn blue.

How and When to Get Help

  • If you are experiencing symptoms of Pertussis, see your provider right away.
  • If you or a family member has been identified as exposed, you will receive instructions from the Health Department.
  • The best way to protect against pertussis is by getting vaccinated. Make sure that you and your family are up to date on your immunizations.
  • If you need information on your immunization status, contact your provider or the Health Department.

Need to get vaccinated?

The Missoula City-County Health Department, located at 301 West Alder St., carries the Pertussis vaccine (DTaP & Tdap) and can bill most insurance plans, including Medicaid. They offer a sliding fee scale for those who are uninsured or underinsured.

Call the Immunization Clinic at 406-258-3363 for more information. The clinic offers walk-in hours at the following times: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

If you have not been contacted by the Health Department, no action is needed at this point. If you have additional questions, please contact (406) 258-INFO.