A sixth death was confirmed Tuesday in Ohio’s largest outbreak of Legion- naires’ disease as the affected retirement complex took steps to prevent further illness and health officials tried to determine what caused a second outbreak about 80 miles away.
Thirty-nine people, including eight visitors and one employee, have been sickened at Wesley Ridge Retirement Community in Reynoldsburg, just east of Columbus.
The disease, a rare type of pneumonia, isn’t contagious. People contract it by breathing in water droplets contaminated with bacteria that are found naturally in water and sometimes multiply in large or complex man-made water systems, such as plumbing in large buildings. Most people exposed to the bacteria don’t become ill, but those who are older or have weakened immune systems are at higher risk.
Those affected at Wesley Ridge ranged in age from 63 to 99. The six who died were residents.
The bacteria were found in a cooling tower and the water system at the complex, which used high heat and chlorine to try to destroy the bacteria after a few of the roughly 225 residents first became sick last month.
The retirement community is testing water, installing special filtering shower heads and planning to create long-term testing and maintenance plans to ensure no one else becomes ill, said Margaret Carmany, CEO of Wesley Ridge’s parent company, Methodist ElderCare Services.
“I’m doing everything in my power to make sure we get rid of this bacteria and we keep it out of our system,” Carmany said.
She said the complex had met or exceeded regulators’ water safety standards prior to the outbreak.
Once the outbreak is fully addressed, the Ohio Department of Health plans discussions about whether pretreating water systems would be a cost-effective way to reduce the risk at facilities like hospitals and nursing homes, which have complex water systems and patrons with increased vulnerability to disease, department spokeswoman Tessie Pollock said.
Meanwhile, health officials in western Ohio are searching for another bacteria source after one person died and a second became ill at an auto parts supplier in St. Marys.
The Auglaize County Health Department said no update on those cases was available Tuesday.
Ohio has had at least 326 cases of Legionnaires’ disease this year, with a total of eight deaths in five outbreaks, according to the department of health. The state had 290 cases last year and 390 cases in 2011, when an outbreak at a hospital was linked to 11 cases, including two deaths.
About 3,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease are reported annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the CDC estimates 8,000 to 18,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with the illness each year.
Most people who become ill with Legionnaires’ disease recover if they’re treated, according to the National Institutes of Health.