County workers contract Legionnaire's disease

Vidya Kora

La PORTE – July's sudden rise in temperature, combined with dust from nearby construction, is believed to be the cause of the Legionnaire's disease that sent three county employees to the hospital last month.

The incident occurred in July at the Hiler building at Michigan and State, which houses county offices, according to Commissioner Dr. Vidya Kora.

"About three or four weeks ago, four employees came to me and said they were feeling sick," Kora said, "and three of them were quite sick and had to be hospitalized for symptoms of pneumonia."

Three of those four employees later tested positive for Legionnaire's disease, a bacteria that grows in moist places and can cause severe illness if inhaled in water vapor, he said.

All of the employees, who were hospitalized for four or five days, have since recovered from the illness, though Kora said one of them is "still not 100 percent."

The county Health and Maintenance departments inspected the building where the four worked, and then called in a firm from Kentucky which is approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do environmental assessments, he said.

"They took samples in several locations and one came back positive for Legionnaire's, from an air conditioning cooling unit on the roof of the building," Kora said.

Because the system is a "closed loop," he said the bacteria could not get into the building itself, but workers who had been on the roof came into contact.

The assessment company said it was a combination of things that caused the bacteria, Kora said.

"They said it was the rapid rise in temperatures and humidity in July," he said, "combined with dust from the bridgework going on nearby" on U.S. 35.

The air conditioning unit, which undergoes regular disinfecting, was then cleaned and disinfected twice more, and two rounds of testing by the Health Department showed no more trace of the bacteria.

A third round of testing samples was sent to the firm in Kentucky to be double-checked, and Kora said the county is awaiting those results.

Kora said Legionnaire's is caused by a bacteria that grows in moist places, and while you can safely drink infected water, it is when the water becomes aerated and is breathed in that the disease can infect a person.

In addition to the regular disinfecting of the system, he said the county will now do regular sampling for the bacteria as part of the process.

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