Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration recently shifted course and stated that it will rebuild residence halls at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy (IVHQ), which housed victims of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in which 13 people died among dozens sickened since 2015.

The plan was announced less than two months after the Republican governor said the state would replace the outdated plumbing system, which could be the likely source of the Legionella bacteria that cause outbreak.

“The cost and the disruption and the construction that would be involved, not to mention the time it would take to do this [plumbing replacement] would just not be worth the effort when you think about building a brand-new building,” said Erica Jefferies, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA). “We do not want to spend years tearing up 70-year-old buildings to put brand-new piping in when we know that might not be a total solution.”

The plan to tear down several of the dorms on the 130-year old campus in western Illinois would take place within 3 to 5 years.

Legionnaires’ and Illinois

In other recent Illinois-related Legionnaires’ news:

  • Senator William “Sam” McCann (R-Plainview) called for the resignation of Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). “We have people living in that facility who survived the battlefield, but they may not survive us,” McCann said.
  • The Illinois House passed a unanimous vote (104-0) asking the IVHQ, the IDVA, the IDPH, and Gov. Rauner’s administration to report on what officials “knew and when they knew it” regarding the outbreak.
  • The Illinois House’s veterans’ affairs committee approved a bill (House Bill 4310) that would require IVHQ officials to notify residents, family and staff of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak within 24 hours. When the first outbreak occurred in 2015, it took officials six days to notify the public, saying they didn’t realize they were dealing with an “epidemic.”
Legionnaires' disease bacteria
Legionella bacteria

Eradication may not be possible

Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) returned last month to the IVHQ to review testing protocols for individuals with respiratory illness, at the request of the IDPH.

The CDC warned in a 20-page report that the “complete eradication of Legionella in any large, complex building water system may not be possible.” The information was compiled in response to last year’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the IVHQ.

“There is no known safe level of Legionella in building water systems, and cases have been associated with very low levels of bacteria,” the report concluded.

Despite efforts to eliminate Legionella from the IVHQ, the ST36 strain of the bacterium has been identified in the IVHQ water system each of the past three years.

“It is probable that this strain persists in protective biofilm, scale, and sediment that are present in the plumbing infrastructure,” according to the CDC report.

Legionnaires’ facts and figures

Legionnaires’ disease – also called Legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. According to the CDC, an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur each year, but only 5,000 cases are reported because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

Ten percent of those who become infected with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.

Contracting Legionnella
Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Outbreaks have been linked to a number of sources, including:

  • cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • water systems such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels (IVHQ undertook a nearly $5 million, state-of-the-art rehabilitation of its water-treatment plant in summer 2016)
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • physical therapy equipment
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • decorative fountains.

People also can contract Legionnaires’ disease when they “aspirate” contaminated drinking water – that is, choking or coughing while drinking can cause water to go down the wrong pipe into the lungs. That, however, is a very rare occurrence.

Who is most susceptible?
Anyone can get the disease, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 or older
  • smokers, both current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcohol
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).