Legionnaires’ Outbreak: What It Is and How to Prevent It

06/03/2019 | By Sarah Kloepple

The Ohio Department of Health has confirmed at least eight cases of Legionnaires’ disease in individuals who received treatment at a recently opened hospital outside Columbus. The department also announced one of the patients has died amid the outbreak at Mount Carmel Grove City.

“Currently, we’re working with county and state health officials to identify the source of the bacteria. We’ve taken several steps to protect our patients, staff and visitors, including implementing extensive water restrictions,” said Dr. Richard Streck, chief clinical operations officer for the Mount Carmel Health System, in a statement.

X-ray of an infected person with Legionnaires' Disease
(Photo: Chest X-Ray of Legionella Pneumonia with extensive interstitial and alveolar infiltrate in the left lung. Credit: Shutterstock)

“We are running additional tests on water sources throughout Mount Carmel Grove City, and our entire water supply is undergoing supplemental disinfection. We’re confident that we can safely maintain full services of the hospital,” he stated.

According to the Associated Press, the first patient at Mount Carmel Grove City to be diagnosed with Legionnaires’—a severe form of pneumonia—was admitted to the hospital on April 29, the day after the facility opened.

The Ohio Department of Health ordered the hospital to test and clean its ice machines, clean and service its on-site cooling towers, and provide all test results and a water management plan to the health department.

Mount Carmel urges anyone who has been hospitalized at the facility and develops a cough, muscle aches, headaches or shortness of breath to contact their primary care physician.

[Related: How to Avoid Spreading Airborne Illnesses in Your Building]

What is Legionnaires’ Disease?

Legionnaires’ disease is a serious type of pneumonia (lung infection) caused by Legionella bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

People can get sick when they breathe in mist or accidently swallow water containing Legionella into the lungs.

The disease can be treated with antibiotics. However, according to the CDC, about 1 in 10 people who get the disease will die from the infection.

For most people, the risk of developing Legionnaires’ disease is low, even if exposed to the bacteria. However, people with chronic, underlying medical conditions, people 50 years or over and current or former smokers are at increased risk.

Legionnaires’ disease can cause pneumonia symptoms, such as:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Fever

The disease can be treated with antibiotics. Most people who get sick need hospital care but make a full recovery. However, according to the CDC, about 1 in 10 people who get the disease will die from the infection.

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How to Prevent a Legionnaires’ Outbreak

One of the best resources to make sure you are following the recommended guidelines for keeping your water systems safe is the ASHRAE standard 12-2000: Minimizing the Risk of Legionellosis Associated with Building Water Systems.

The standard breaks down factors associated with Legionella growth—temperature, chlorine concentration—in areas where infection is most common, including:

  • Potable water (faucets, showerheads, piping, nozzles, storage tanks, etc.)
  • Cooling towers
  • Decorative fountains
  • Hot tubs

It’s also important to devise a water safety management program.

The CDC provides a step-by-step plan for creating a program that involves establishing a water management program team, identifying areas where Legionella could grow and spread, and deciding where you need to apply control measures and how to monitor them.

Healthcare facilities are especially prone to a Legionnaires’ outbreak. The CDC says most issues that lead to healthcare-associated outbreaks in the U.S. could be prevented with an effective water safety management program.

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