As whooping cough spikes, Aroostook hospital vaccinates employees

Posted June 14, 2012, at 5:17 p.m.
Last modified June 15, 2012, at 6 a.m.
Dr. Stephen Sears
Maine.gov
Dr. Stephen Sears

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A rise in whooping cough across the state that has intensified in recent weeks is prompting The Aroostook Medical Center to offer free vaccines to its employees.

In the last two weeks alone, whooping cough cases reported in Maine this year have jumped from 80 to 125. The state recorded 50 cases of the highly contagious respiratory disease through mid-June of last year.

The rise mirrors a nationwide trend.

This year’s spike in whooping cough, or pertussis, first cropped up in northern Maine, followed by outbreaks at schools in Skowhegan and Scarborough.

Over the last two weeks, pertussis cases have risen in counties where the disease already was present, rather than spreading further geographically, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Reports of whooping cough in Somerset and Cumberland counties have nearly doubled since the end of May.

Public health officials expect to see more cases of pertussis in coming days. The disease could spread to additional counties, especially as children travel to summer camps and interact with children from other regions of the state, warned Dr. Stephen Sears, state epidemiologist.

“This is the pattern that we see,” he said. “Once the disease gets to a certain rate, the likelihood of someone getting it goes up.”

Aroostook County has yet to record any cases of the disease this year, but that doesn’t mean whooping cough hasn’t made inroads, said Jennifer Tweedie, a TAMC infection prevention nurse.

The state CDC relies on lab results in recording whooping cough cases, which may miss instances where doctors treat a patient based on the symptoms of pertussis without testing for the disease, she said.

A local doctor also suspects there may have been an outbreak in The County’s Amish community that wasn’t recorded by health officials, Tweedie said.

“Just because of the rise throughout the state, the risk of us being affected in Aroostook County increases,” she said.

TAMC employees who interact regularly with young children and have not been vaccinated against whooping cough will be offered the vaccine at no charge.

Tweedie expected about 100 employees would be vaccinated by the end of a clinic on Thursday, a turnout she hoped to replicate Friday. Employees are being offered the tetanus, diptheria and pertussis vaccine, which can take the place of a tetanus-only booster in adults. The vaccine typically costs about $30.

Letters about the immunization effort went out last week to 310 employees in the emergency department and lab at A.R. Gould Memorial Hospital, women and children’s health, all obstetric and gynecologic providers, Aroostook Pediatrics, a walk-in clinic, four TAMC health centers and Crown Ambulance Service. The offer will be extended in the coming weeks to staff in other areas that directly treat patients and, eventually, to all employees, Tweedie said.

“Adults who have close contact with children should get the vaccine to protect the child from acquiring it. Babies less than 12 months of age become seriously ill if they come down with pertussis,” she said.

Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, TAMC’s parent organization, will evaluate the pertussis vaccination effort and consider broadening it to other members in eastern, central and northern Maine, said Dr. Erik Steele, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems’ chief medical officer.

“We’ll all take a look at it,” he said.

EMHS encourages employees to be immunized against pertussis, but doesn’t require the booster shot, Steele said. The system does mandate other vaccinations or proof of immunity for workers at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, such as against measles and chickenpox.

Employees may opt out for philosophical, medical or religious reasons.

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