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In Michigan, cases of whooping cough hint at post-pandemic comeback

This illustration depicted a three-dimensional (3D), computer-generated image, of a group of aerobic, Gram-negative, Bordetella pertussis bacteria. The artistic recreation was based upon scanning electron microscopic (SEM) imagery.

Based on imagery from an electron microscope, this illustration depicts Bordetella pertussis bacteria, which causes pertussis or whooping cough. (Courtesy photo, CDC).

  • Michigan has seen a bump in pertussis cases in recent weeks
  • The infection, which causes a whoop-like cough, can be deadly for infants. Vaccine protection wanes
  • Pertussis cases are nowhere near the levels they were in surges more than a decade ago 

Michigan health officials are noting an increase in cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, in several counties — an increase that may tick back cases to pre-pandemic levels.

As of June 15, 113 cases had been detected statewide — three more than the 110 cases seen for all of last year, according to reports compiled by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Still, that’s far below past levels. In 2013 and 2014, for example, the state reported surges to 1,016 and 1,363 cases, respectively.


Washtenaw County Health Department officials alerted the public and health providers earlier this month about the uptick as a way to pique awareness for doctors for whom pertussis is no longer top-of-mind, Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, health department spokesperson, told Bridge Michigan.

Early detection means quick treatment with antibiotics, which could stop the spread and protect the most vulnerable to pertussis, including babies, whose immune systems are still developing, Ringler-Cerniglia said.


But the infection could first be mistaken for COVID or another respiratory virus, she said. The highly contagious respiratory illness can begin much like a common cold, too, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But coughing caused by pertussis can last for weeks or months and be so severe that the infected person cannot catch their breath. It is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which attaches to the lining of the upper respiratory system and releases toxins, causing the airways to swell and other damage, according to the CDC.

Pandemic plummet

The Michigan climb in pertussis cases reflects U.S. trends.

Reports of pertussis plummeted during the pandemic both in MIchigan and throughout the nation, likely the result of remote work and school and masking, according to health experts. And those numbers have remained lower than normal since then.


But nationwide pertussis cases so far this year are three times higher than at the same time in 2023 — close to the case numbers in 2019, prior to COVID, the CDC reported.

Of the 113 cases in Michigan, 28 had been detected among Washtenaw County residents, as of June 15, according to data by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Ringler-Cerniglia said the total number of cases in Washtenaw County has since risen to 31.

Cases have been reported in neighboring counties and Detroit, too: Lenawee (10), Oakland (17), Wayne and Detroit (12) and Macomb (3), according to the state’s data.

Those cases in Washtenaw so far have been among teens and young adults, and no hospitalizations have been reported. 

Most children are vaccinated against pertussis in what are known as the DTAP or TDAP vaccines, which also protect against diphtheria and tetanus.

But the protection against pertussis decreases after two years, leaving teens and young adults more susceptible to infection and contributing to the spread,  Ringler-Cerniglia said.

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