Legionella discovered in Somerset lockup

Kari Andren
| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 12:13 a.m.

Officials at the state prison in Somerset have traced the illnesses of four inmates to Legionella, a potentially dangerous bacteria found in the facility's cooling tower, state Department of Corrections officials said Tuesday.

The waterborne bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease was found in water used in the prison's air-conditioning system after inmates began complaining of flu-like symptoms, department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said.

McNaughton said it's unclear how the prisoners were exposed to the bacteria, but said disinfecting efforts were under way at the tower. She said water for drinking and showering comes from a separate system and is treated by the local water authority.

Legionnaires' disease, a form of pneumonia, can occur when Legionella is inhaled as mist by the elderly or others with weakened immune systems. It is not spread by person-to-person contact or by drinking infected water, according to the state Department of Health.

Not everyone who comes in contact with Legionella develops full-blown Legionnaires' disease or even gets sick, officials said.

“I think the important thing to emphasize is that even if a great many ... people are exposed to Legionella bacteria, a very small number actually become ill,” said Janet Stout, a microbiologist and director of Special Pathogens Laboratory in Pittsburgh, which specializes in Legionella testing, consulting and prevention.

McNaughton confirmed the four Somerset inmates tested positive for Legionella, but would not comment about whether they had developed Legionnaires' disease.

The Somerset outbreak was first identified when an inmate was treated at the prison infirmary and later taken to Somerset Hospital, where tests revealed the Legionella bacteria July 15, McNaughton said.

After that, three other cases were confirmed, the most recent on July 24, according to a news release.

Two inmates required hospitalization and two others were treated in the prison's infirmary, but none are currently in the hospital, McNaughton said.

Stout said Legionella-related illnesses typically spike during the summer, but it's too early to tell if this summer's figures are unusual.

She said her lab won't know exactly how inmates were exposed to the bacteria until tests are completed later this week or next week.

In previous Legionella outbreaks, people have been exposed by simply walking past a cooling tower or breathing the mist inside a facility where infected air has been pulled in through a rooftop intake, Stout said.

McNaughton said the cooling tower is restricted so only certain personnel can access the area. No extra restrictions have been put in place, she said.

Carnegie Mellon University roped off an area around one of its water towers with yellow tape last week when officials found Legionella.

Stout said in recent years, Legionnaires' disease has gained a great deal of attention in Western Pennsylvania.

“I would say, with some confidence, the recent activity certainly in Pittsburgh has raised awareness of Legionella for sure,” Stout said.

Five veterans died among 21 sickened during a Legionnaires' outbreak in the Pittsburgh VA system from February 2011 to November 2012.

The health care system said earlier this month it is investigating whether a patient with Legionnaires' disease might have contracted the illness at the VA hospital in Oakland.

And low levels of Legionella bacteria showed up in routine testing at a Pittsburgh VA outpatient clinic at Washington Crown Center mall in North Franklin.

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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