The Other 60 Percent

Colo. whooping cough cases pass 1,000

Colorado’s whooping cough epidemic has now triggered 1,090 cases of the highly contagious disease, making 2012 the worst year for the disease since 2005 when the state recorded 1,383 cases.

Other states that have declared epidemics are Washington and Wisconsin. In 2010, 10 babies died in California from an outbreak there.

So far, no one has died from the illness this year in Colorado, but Dr. Rachel Herlihy of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said there have been several close calls with infants who often get the most severe cases of the disease.

“We’ve had a large number of cases with infants and some close calls with infants who have had to be on respirators,” said Herlihy, director of the state health department’s immunization section.

Herlihy urged parents and people who work around children to get vaccinated and to make sure both young children and adolescents are up to date on their immunizations for the disease, which is also called pertussis.

Colorado cases of whooping cough by county
  • Broomfield, 32 cases; highest rate in state with 56 per 100,000
  • Boulder, 130 cases; second highest rate in the state: 43 per 100,000
  • Adams, 155 cases; rate: 34 per 100,000
  • Jefferson, 164; rate: 30 per 100,000
  • Denver, 174 cases; rate: 28 per 100,000
  • Douglas, 71 cases; rate 24 per 100,000
  • Arapahoe, 132 cases; rate 23 per 100,000

Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“It’s especially important for those who have contact with young children who are more vulnerable to whooping cough. Child care workers, health care workers, parents, grandparents and siblings of young children should all make sure they are up to date on their whooping cough vaccinations,” Herlihy said.

All adults should receive the whooping cough booster vaccine, which is called Tdap, but few have received it, or even know they should get it, Herlihy said. There is no lifetime protection against whooping cough. People can get it more than once and the vaccine wanes over time.

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Some families in Colorado choose not to vaccinate their babies. Boulder and Broomfield counties have the highest rates of pertussis right now and Boulder is frequently cited as one of the national hotspots for people who refuse vaccines.

While some unvaccinated children are spreading the disease, it also seems to be striking some older children whose vaccinations may be wearing off early.

Herlihy said infected children also may be returning to day care or school too soon and also could be continuing to spread whooping cough.

“You are supposed to isolate yourself for a full five days of antibiotics. Unfortunately, we’re seeing kids who are going back to school too soon and they are continuing to spread the infection,” Herlihy said.

The telltale sign of the disease is a persistent cough that won’t go away. Herlihy said that in China, the disease is called the “100-day illness.” Anyone who has a family member who is experiencing a long-lasting illness with a cough should call or visit a doctor.

Infants under six months are too young to have received all the vaccine doses necessary to protect them from pertussis. So it’s critical for people who live and work around them to be immunized.

The Tdap vaccine is recommended for the following groups:

  • Pregnant women in the third or late-second trimester
  • Parents of infants under 12 months of age.
  • Caregivers of infants, including grandparents, babysitters and child care workers.
  • Health care workers
  • Others who plan on having close contact with an infant
  • All adults need a tetanus booster if they have previously not received Tdap

Pertussis is a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that can easily spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The illness often starts with cold-like symptoms, including sneezing, a runny nose and a mild cough. Often there is no fever or just a low-grade fever. The cough becomes more severe during the first week or two and people who are ill can have coughing fits, followed by a high-pitched “whoop” or a coughing fit so severe that the person vomits. The cough may last for a couple of months and is more frequent at night.

Since symptoms in adults and adolescents can be relatively mild, individuals may not realize they have pertussis and can easily spread it to others. Young infants with pertussis often do not have a cough but gasp or struggle to breathe.

Symptoms of whooping cough or pertussis
  • Causes coughing spells so bad that it is hard for infants to eat, drink or breathe. These coughing spells can last for weeks. It can lead to pneumonia, seizures (jerking and staring spells), brain damage and death. It is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and spreads germs.

Who needs to be vaccinated?

  • Children should get 5 doses of DTaP vaccine, one dose at each of the following ages: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, 4-6 years, 11-12 years
  • Anyone who comes in contact with your baby – parents, grandparents, caregivers, siblings, plus extended family and friends – should receive the adult booster (Tdap) to help shield newborns from whooping cough.
  • In January 2011, the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices updated the Tdap vaccine recommendations to also include certain adults 65 years of age and older and under-vaccinated children aged 7 – 10 years.

Sources: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.