Vieng Say Lasey Song Kham was stoic as he pulled up his T-shirt sleeve at the last community Tdap clinic in San Pablo last week. A Contra Costa County registered nurse gently swabbed his shoulder before flicking the syringe and poking the small needle into his upper arm, a process that took only a second but could make a big difference when it comes to protecting Lasey Song Kham and others from contracting pertussis, a contagious disease that killed ten California infants last year.
The John F. Kennedy High School ninth-grader is one of millions of California students in the seventh to 12th grades who risk being turned away from school this year if they don’t get the shot within 30 days of their first day of school. For West Contra Costa County School District students, the deadline is this week.
Tdap is a booster shot that protects against pertussis (commonly known as whooping cough), a contagious bacterial disease that was declared an epidemic last year after more than 27,500 cases were reported in California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 200 Contra Costa County residents tested positive for the sickness in 2010, a sharp rise from the usual ten or so cases that are usually reported in the county each year, said Paul Leung, the immunization coordinator for Contra Costa Health Services. Ninety-nine CCC residents have reportedly come down with the disease this year so far, he said.
But as of Sept. 15, a significant number of the district’s 14,000 middle- and high-school students hadn’t received their shot, according to data compiled by Frances Ng, a district nurse.
In regards to middle schools, Lovonya DeJean Middle School had the lowest percentage of compliance with 48 percent. Hercules Middle School had the highest percentage of compliance with 76 percent.
Middle College High School took the No. 1 spot for high schools with 100 percent compliance, and John F. Kennedy High School had the lowest level of compliance with 65 percent.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had [a new vaccine requirement] for so many grade levels, and it really is ambitious to do seven through 12 all at once,” Leung said. “We’re talkin’ many, many thousands of students in our county.”
In fall 2010, the state passed a law requiring kids entering grades seven to 12 to show proof of having received the vaccination before their first day of the 2011-2012 school year. After this year, only students entering the seventh grade will be required to get the vaccine.
But by July 2011, an estimated 1 million California students had yet to meet the requirement, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill allowing a 30-day grace period. For Richmond-area schools, the new deadline falls in the third week of September.
County health departments around the state—including Contra Costa Health Services—teamed up with school districts earlier this year in an effort to get the word out to parents.
In Contra Costa County, weekly community clinics were held starting near the end of the school year at locations including San Pablo City Hall, where students could receive the vaccine for free, Leung said. At its peak, the San Pablo clinic saw up to 300 kids a week.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of whooping cough cases, so we try to do whatever we can to get vaccine out there because it is a preventable disease,” Leung said. “It’s unlike chicken pox or measles, where if you get it once you’re immune for the rest of your life.”
Pertussis usually shows up as a nagging cough in most individuals, but for infants who are too young to receive their first round of immunizations, it can be deadly. Most babies contract the disease from a family member, Leung said. This discovery has led to an emphasis on “cocooning” infants from the disease by ensuring those close to them are vaccinated.
Pertussis is considered to be a common disease in the United States, and epidemics occur every three-to-five years, according to the CDC. But the number of Californians who contracted the disease last year was the highest since 1947, prompting legislators to follow in the footsteps of other states and pass a vaccination law, Leung said.
As the 30-day grace period comes to an end, school administrators are taking a wait-and-see approach with how to deal with kids who show up at school after deadline without the vaccination, said Marin Trujillo, a spokesperson for the West Contra Costa County Unified School District.
“The way that we’ve been operating around this is that we do not want to turn anyone away, but the letter that we sent to families did say ‘no shot, no school,’ and it’s true,” Trujillo said. He said the district may have to get creative by potentially offering the shot on campuses for a day or two, but no plans have been confirmed.
Leung expects that most administrators will call the Contra Costa County Office of Education for advice on how to handle noncompliant students when the deadline comes, and if they still can’t get an answer, they’ll contact the California Department of Education.
Although community clinics are over, individuals who have yet to receive their Tdap shot can visit their private doctor or a pharmacy that administers the vaccine, Leung said. Students and their parents can also visit the county’s brick-and-mortar location at 100 38th St. between 1 and 4:30 p.m. on Mondays for a $15 fee, and fee waivers are available.
For more information, visit www.shotsforschool.org/tdaplaw.