A Central Texas hotel temporarily closed its doors last week once public health officials disclosed an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a severe and sometimes deadly form of pneumonia.
“With Legionnaires’ disease, one case is certainly an emergency,” said John Teel, executive director of the Williamson County and Cities Health District.
In an October 4 statement, Williamson County health officials confirmed a cluster of Legionnaires’ disease, alerting the public they received four confirmed reports of the illness purportedly originating from the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in Round Rock, an Austin suburb. The hotel said they decided to voluntarily close while investigators sought to identify the source of the infection.
Since then, public health officials revealed two more cases. Of the current total number of six cases, five were hotel guests, one was an employee.
Teel told the Austin American-Statesman that the most recent person diagnosed with the illness is currently in the hospital but previously stayed at the hotel. Health officials believe the outbreak erupted between June 25 and October 2, prompting them to also study reports from 20 other individuals who became infected with a respiratory illness while staying at the hotel or once they returned home but were not diagnosed with the bacteria.
Legionnaires’ disease is a very serious and even fatal type of pneumonia that continues to rise in the United States, notes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They estimate that one out of every 10 people who contract the bacteria will die.
Caused by the Legionella pneumophila bacterium, the illness was named for the 1976 outbreak of a mysterious lung infection that occurred at an American Legion convention held in a Philadelphia hotel during the nation’s bicentennial celebration. It ended with hundreds sick and more than 25 dead.
The bacteria can be tricky to diagnose because they can incubate up to a two-weeks before a person manifests symptoms that are similar to the flu: cough, shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, body aches, headache, and a high fever. It tends to strike people over 50-years-old, those with compromised immune systems, and/or individuals who smoke. The Mayo Clinic points out that, although Legionella pneumophila mainly targets the lungs, it can cause infections in wounds and in other parts of the body such as the heart. Legionnaires’ disease can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
The germ does not spread from person-to-person contact so an infected individual poses no threat to others. However, while Legionella naturally occurs in lakes and streams, it can become a public health issue when it grows and spreads through artificial water systems often found in large buildings. Generally, people contract it by breathing in water droplets contaminated with Legionnaires’ bacteria from cruise ship hot tubs and jacuzzis, grocery store mist machines, air conditioning system cooling towers, showers, faucets, decorative water fountains, and water systems in hotels, hospitals, and nursing homes. The Mayo Clinic says it is less likely a person will contract the disease from a home plumbing system.
In a prepared statement the SpringHill Suites Austin Round Rock indicated they “voluntarily elected to close the property to guests beginning on October 4 at 5 p.m. (CDT)” as they conducted their investigation in conjunction with the Williamson County Health District. The hotel stated they “engaged a third-party expert that specializes in remediating environmental health issues.”
Hotel officials commented that they continue to work to identify “any possible source of contamination” and rectify the situation. “We hope that the hotel, after obtaining approval from the health department, may be able to reopen by about October 24.”
They apologized to guests inconvenienced by this unforeseen incident. They said they were helping people with reservations to relocate to other nearby hotels.
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