Legionnaires’ outbreak in veterans’ home worsens; 7 dead

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This undated image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a large grouping of Legionella pneumophila bacteria (Legionnaires’ disease).

The number of fatalities at a downstate veterans home hit by an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease is now at seven, and officials said that figure could grow.

A total of 39 residents of the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy have tested positive for Legionnaire’s, with seven of them dying in the past week, officials with the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the state’s Department of Public Health said Tuesday.

The outbreak was first made public Thursday, when eight people had contacted the disease but no one had died. There were four fatalities as of early Monday, and three more people died between midday Monday and early Tuesday, officials said.

Those who died had been infected with the disease, but officials have not confirmed whether Legionnaires’ was the cause of death. Testing is ongoing for other residents.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see additional cases and possibly additional deaths because the incubation period for Legionnaires’ disease can be up to two weeks, and because patients with underlying medical conditions are at increased risk of more severe illness,” Department of Public Health Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a statement.

State Veterans Affairs’ Department spokesman Ryan Yantis said Monday that any resident with a respiratory illness will be treated as though he or she has Legionnaires’ until tests show otherwise.

Legionnaires’ is caused by a bacteria commonly found in warm water sources like those in hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, fountains and large plumbing systems, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A person could become infected with the disease by inhaling water vapor carrying the bacteria, according to the CDC. It is not spread from person to person or by drinking contaminated water.

Those most at risk for contracting the disease include people older than 50, those with compromised or weakened immune systems and people with chronic lung disease, according to CDC fact sheets.

About 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized for the disease in the U.S. each year, according to the state health department. Symptoms can include cough, fever, muscle aches and shortness of breath, according to the CDC, although many exposed to the bacteria don’t get sick.

Yantis said several measures are in place to prevent further spread of the disease at the Quincy facility, including cleaning hot water tanks, using bottled water and shutting off fountains and other sources of water vapor. Officials also have cleaned the cooling tower.

Several outbreaks of Legionnaires’ have popped up throughout the country in recent weeks, including one at San Quentin State Prison in California and another in the South Bronx in New York City. An inmate at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill also came down with the disease earlier this month.

CDC officials visited the Quincy facility Monday to assist in the investigation of the outbreak.

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