Legionella bacteria was positively identified by the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (FDOH) after testing of a hot water heater in the fitness area at the IslandWalk at West Villages gated community in North Port, FL, according to news reports.

However, the FDOH believes the pool and spa area are where people came into contact with the bacteria, despite the fact that those areas returned negative results for the bacteria after testing.

FDOH officials said that by the end of February, 13 residents had been confirmed with Legionnaires’ disease, which is a severe type of pneumonia caused by Legionella infection. No additional cases have been seen in nearly a month, so officials said they believe the threat is contained.

“The temperature of the water heater was lower than it should have been,” Environmental Health Director Tom Higginbotham said. “This was a low-use hot water heater that wasn’t serving any showers, just hand sinks, so I don’t see any negligence at this point.”

Domestic water heaters need to be maintained at 140 degrees Fahrenheit and water delivered at the faucet at a minimum of 122 degrees in order to control the growth of Legionella, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The spa and pools have been sanitized, according to IslandWalk officials, and they are replacing the contaminated water heater.

IslandWalk at the West Villages
The pool and spa area at IslandWalk remain temporarily closed until health officials give the all clear.

IslandWalk at the West Villages

IslandWalk at the West Villages is an 830-acre, gated, lakefront community of luxury single-family homes, patio homes, and townhomes surrounded by lakes and preserves. The community’s features include a resort center, fitness center, movement studio, resort and lap pools, and sports courts.

North Port is located in southern Sarasota County.

Residents or visitors to the IslandWalk gated community who are exhibiting pneumonia- or flu-like symptoms (see symptoms below) should seek immediate medical attention from their primary health-care provider.

Legionnaires’ facts and figures

Legionnaires’ disease – also called legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 Legionella
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, such as:

  • hot water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • the cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • water systems such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • 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.

It is also possible to contract Legionnaires’ disease from home plumbing systems, although the vast majority of outbreaks have occurred in large buildings because complex systems amplify the conditions for bacteria to grow and spread more easily.

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

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • 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).

Symptoms are numerous
Legionnaires’ disease is similar to other types of pneumonia (lung infection). Symptoms can resemble flu-like symptoms in the following forms:

  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.