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Regional News

Remembering N. Idaho's 1997 Pertussis Outbreak

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Courtesy of DeNene Banger and Randi Lustig
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Longtime north Idaho residents may recall that, about a generation ago, their region suffered a communicable disease outbreak that has some similarities to our current Covid pandemic.

Two retired public health nurses have just published a book that looks back at that time.In 1997, DeNene Banger and Randi Lustig worked for the Panhandle Health District in Coeur d’Alene. Banger was in charge of disease testing sites. Lustig was the manager of the epidemiology program.

Lustig says, around the first of April that year, they heard the news that pertussis, whooping cough, was emerging in their community.

“It began with the death of an infant and originally it was said to be a SIDS death, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The doctor, just from a learned habit in his residency as a pediatrician, had been taught to do a post-mortem test, just to see if it was pertussis. We got the result because pertussis is a reportable disease. The report was sent to the health department and it was shocking to realize that this Sudden Infant Death Syndrome tragedy was actually being caused by a disease that was an old well-known disease and to discover that this disease was still deadly," Lustig said.

“It started like many communicable disease outbreaks, one or two cases and then grew very quickly. The sense that we had as we were experiencing this was the sense of uncertainty. You didn’t know from one day to the next what was going to be happening and the case count grew so quickly that we became more and more alarmed," Banger said.

Eventually, over the next two months, the district confirmed 203 cases out of hundreds who were tested. Through it all, Banger and Lustig wrote down their thoughts as the outbreak peaked and ebbed. They describe the chaos involved with setting up testing and vaccination sites and the lines of people waiting for both. After the outbreak, officials from the Centers for Disease Control came from Atlanta to investigate the outbreak. They wrote about that too.

The two writing partners created a manuscript, but it sat on a shelf for years, until the Covid pandemic hit.

“As it came to this country and as the cases started to grow, the problems that they were having in Washington state and later in New York State were the same problems that we had. I remember talking to Randi and saying nothing has changed. We are still unprepared," Banger said.

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Credit Courtesy of DeNene Banger and Randi Lustig
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Their book is available in several bookstores in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene.

With time to write, they pulled the manuscript from the shelf and shaped it into a book called “Far from Safe: A Memoir of an Outbreak.”

They tell the story of that 1997 pertussis outbreak in north Idaho and eastern Washington. Randi Lustig says there are the human stories, but also lessons that could have been learned a generation ago.

“Behind the scenes, there’s chaos. You’re trying to do a mission, whether it’s for pandemic Covid or pertussis, but what you’re standing on is not a firm infrastructure that supports the mission," Lustig said.

“Public health infrastructure is weaker than it was in 1997 when we had this little outbreak. I remember early in the pandemic, listening to Governor Cuomo say, ‘Let me tell you about the public health system in the United States. There is no public health system in the United States.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, that is so true,'" Banger said.

They also learned that vaccines are not always the savior that they’re sometimes made out to be.

“Many of the people that we tested who were positive had been vaccinated for pertussis," Banger said.

“More than 80% of the children had been fully vaccinated," Lustig said.

There’s one more thing they learned, says Banger. Even though public health was underfunded in 1997, it was an institution that people trusted.

“When we dealt with people, our community members, they came in, they were tested, they gave us the names of their contacts, they stayed home from work, even when work was something that kept their family fed. This pandemic is, somehow, very different," Banger said.

People don’t even know that there’s a law or a regulation. They think they can make it up themselves whether they’re going to wear a mask or whether they’re going to stay home or whether they need to give any information out. They’re, like, stunned," Lustig said.

Banger and Lustig are the authors of “Far from Safe: A Memoir of an Outbreak.” Their book is available in several bookstores in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.