A Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak at the San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California was caused by contaminated cooling towers. The report was filed by J. Clark Kelso, the federally appointed receiver who is responsible for the California prison’s medical system.
Thirteen inmates were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ Disease, and more than 80 others were diagnosed with pneumonia. Some of the staff were also sickened, and there are twelve cases of staff members’ illness that are currently being investigated.
The report states that “Later water tests of environmental samples revealed that the water in two of the cooling towers at the top of the Central Health Services Building had high concentrations of Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1, which is the most common cause of Legionnaires’ disease.”
Cooling towers are part of the air conditioning and HVAC systems in large buildings. Air and water are brought together in those towers. Some of the water then evaporates, which lowers the temperature of the water. Vapor or mist that may be contaminated with bacteria is then released. When people breathe the mist over a period of time, they can get sick.
The report also stated that a heat wave in the San Francisco area when the outbreak occurred played a part in the bacteria’s growth. In addition, there was “an excessive build-up of debris (e.g. sludge) in the water pans associated with the cooling towers.”
The symptoms of Legionnaires’ Disease start with fever and chills. A cough that may produce blood or sputum follows. The symptoms are very similar to pneumonia, which is why many who have this illness are not diagnosed. Tests for Legionnaires’ are usually only run after a group of people living or working in the same area present at doctor’s offices or hospitals with the same symptoms.
Legionnaires’ Disease is not spread person-to-person. Those who are most susceptible to this illness include people over the age of 50, current or former smokers, and anyone with chronic lung disease or a suppressed immune system. The illness can be fatal up to 30% of the time. This disease can be treated with antibiotics, but early diagnosis is key to the best outcome.
Three other Legionnaires’ Disease outbreaks across the country this past summer have proven deadly. One person died and 13 others were sickened in an outbreak in the Morris Park neighborhood of the Bronx, New York City in early fall. That outbreak is still ongoing.
An outbreak at the Veterans’ Home in Quincy, Illinois this summer killed twelve people and sickened another 54. Senator Dick Durbin has asked for a congressional investigation into that outbreak. The facility is quite old, which is a risk factor for Legionella bacteria contamination.
And another Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak in the South Bronx in New York City earlier this year killed at least twelve people and sickened another 124 this summer. That outbreak was linked to contaminated cooling towers at the Opera House Hotel.