CDC sign in Atlanta
Caption
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shown Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Atlanta.
Credit: John Bazemore/AP

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention closed several buildings it leases in Atlanta because Legionella bacteria have been found in their water systems, the organization said Sunday. 

No one has reported feeling ill to date, the CDC said.

The bacteria likely grew during the prolonged pandemic shutdown, and can when droplets of water are inhaled cause respiratory illness including shortness of breath, pneumonia and even death.

Researchers discovered Legionella among people who attended a Philadelphia convention of the American Legion in 1976.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: How Legionnaires' Disease Resembles COVID-19 And How The Pandemic May Result In More Outbreaks

David Krause, an expert in recognition, evaluation and control of Legionella in building systems, said the recent shutdowns of hotels, schools and office buildings could lead to stagnant water in the lines and widespread outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.

"Legionella does grow in cooling, outside equipment, and can lead to widespread outbreaks of disease, but the common myth is that people contract it inside the building because the Legionella bacteria is blowing through the ducts," Krause said. "That is not the case."

When buildings sit empty, the chlorine disinfectant in the water gets consumed and bacteria flourishes and grows.

"During the recent closures at our leased space in Atlanta, working through the General Services Administration (GSA), CDC directed the landlord to take protective actions," the CDC said in an emailed statement. "Despite their best efforts, CDC has been notified that Legionella, which can cause Legionnaires’ Disease, is present in some water sources in the buildings."

The CDC said it closed impacted buildings until successful remediation is complete out of an abundance of caution, and that the organization's owned campuses have not been affected.

"We have notified the small number of staff who accessed these buildings in recent weeks," the CDC said. "We believe the risk of contracting Legionnaires' Disease is low, but have provided staff with instructions if they are concerned about exposure or exhibit symptoms."

Legionnaires’ disease is considered rare. Last year in Georgia, 177 people contracted Legionnaires’ disease, according to the state health department.

That number includes known cases from an outbreak at an Atlanta Sheraton hotel, which threatened last summer’s Dragon Con convention. At least one person died from the outbreak and more than 60 people were sickened, the health department said.

MORE: Sheraton Atlanta Files Lawsuit Against Insurance Companies After Legionella Outbreak

A lawsuit related to the outbreak is ongoing, partly because of the pandemic.

Attorney Jeffrey Diamond said with each extension of the Georgia Supreme Court's Judicial Emergency Declaration, case deadlines continue to be "pushed back." 

"To my understanding, the courts are open, but are primarily occupied with pressing criminal cases, which take priority," Diamond said. "Thus, we're still in the pleadings stage of our case, with little additional progress."

He said a number of settlements already having been agreed to, and others are in the process of negotiation, but he believes the settled claims are confidential and cannot be disclosed. 

In 2018, Georgia’s numbers were even higher, with 191 reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease.

The CDC reported 4,294 cases nationwide in 2019. So far this year, 1,813 cases have been reported across the country.

Testing is best performed by a trained and competent professional, Krause said.

While available for purchase online, "Home test kits often deliver false negative results and without experience and education a homeowner or layperson would not likely know how to interpret the results," he said.

Krause criticized the CDC's recommendation for flushing water lines to clear potential bacterial growth.

The schools, offices and even hospitals that most need to test the water systems are likely already overwhelmed by costs associated with protecting staff and visitors from coronavirus, Krause said.

“Flushing the water will do absolutely nothing,” Krause said. “And, so, they are advising people to basically bring a knife to a gunfight.”

Legionnaires' disease affects some people even years after clearing the bacterial infection. Stephanie Osterhout contracted the disease after a stay at a newly opened hotel three years ago.

Today, she complains of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis she expects will one day leave her in a wheelchair.

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