Whooping Cough Outbreak Hits Elite L.A. Private School Harvard-Westlake

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Los Angeles

The previously unreported epidemic of pertussis has risen to at least 30 students as the prestigious academy works with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to contain it.

Harvard-Westlake, one of Los Angeles' most illustrious private schools, is in the midst of a whooping cough outbreak. As of last Friday, a reported 30 students across its two campuses in Holmby Hills and Studio City have been affected, according to a letter obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, which the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health mandated to be sent to parents of children sharing classes and extracurricular activities with those affected by the illness.

School head and president Richard B. Commons tells THR that “we regularly inform our school community about the symptoms of pertussis [whooping cough] and the steps to take if students exhibit them. The protocol is working, and we have seen fewer new cases in recent weeks.”

However, the epidemic, which began on Nov. 16, had only reached 23 cases on Valentine’s Day, by Harvard-Westlake’s own prior parental communications. This means the count grew notably higher, as a percentage of the whole, in the following eight days. (Students shuttle between campuses for certain classes and activities; some individuals have utilized medical face masks as a preventative or protective measure.)

Commons declined to enumerate what specific efforts have been made to contain the outbreak, or specify if any affected students have required hospitalization. He also wouldn’t explain why Harvard-Westlake’s state-mandated immunization compliance figures weren’t included in the California Department of Public Health's most recent open data set, for 2017-2018.

CDPH couldn’t explain why Harvard-Westlake hadn’t submitted its data. (Thousands of such institutions, both public and private, are tasked with participation in the annual assessment.) “Typically, schools receive multiple notifications to report and offers of assistance from their local health departments,” said department spokesman Jorge DeLaCruz.

As for the cause of the outbreak, the county department of health tells THR in a statement, “the investigation is ongoing.”

According to the Los Angeles County Health Alert Network, a teenager with whooping cough may initially appear to simply suffer from a more common upper respiratory infection. Whooping cough is most serious in young children. (Since 2010, up to 20 infants have died each year in the U.S., according to an estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) The disease spreads easily through the air when an affected person sneezes, coughs or merely breathes.

Harvard-Westlake, which costs $38,000 per year, is admired for its high rate of Ivy League admissions and is a favored academy for industry offspring, from Spielbergs and Katzenbergs to Gyllenhaals.