The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) said it is investigating an outbreak of two cases of Legionnaires’ disease at the recently opened St. John’s Fountain Lake senior community in Albert Lea.

The first resident exhibited symptoms in early June. They were hospitalized and released.

The second resident’s symptoms were reported July 19 to the MDH. Their condition is unknown. Neither the genders nor ages of the two individuals sickened were released.

St. John’s Fountain Lake, which opened last October, provides independent living, assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing care and short-term care for seniors.

MDH, Freeborn County Public Health, the city of Albert Lea and other agencies are assisting St. John’s during the investigation.

MDH epidemiologist supervisor Kathy Como-Sabetti told the Albert Lea Tribune that the investigation is focusing on the building and the premises, including its plumbing and cooling tower.

“MDH is working with St. John’s Fountain Lake to identify possible sources of Legionella and has recommended that facility management work with a consultant to test and remediate those sources as needed,” the MDH stated in a news release. “In the meantime, MDH is recommending a number of protective measures to minimize the chance for residents to be exposed to any Legionella bacteria.”

St. John’s Fountain Lake has contracted with Innovational Concepts, Inc., to assess the water systems and Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories to test the samples, according to administrator Scot Spates. Work is expected to begin immediately.

Test results of the facility’s cooling tower in June were negative for the presence of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, Spates said.

Residents have been warned to avoid drinking the water, using the ice machines and water sprayers, and to take only sponge baths until contractors have completed their remediation and testing shows conclusively that the facility is safe.

Legionnaires’ 101

Legionnaires’ disease – also known as legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is similar to other types of pneumonia, which is an infection of the air sacs in one or both lungs that might produce fluid in the lungs. Symptoms can resemble flu-like symptoms in the following forms:

  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • high fever
  • muscle aches and pains
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Who is most at risk for illness?
Anyone can get Legionnaires’ disease, but people 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).

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.

How does Legionella infect a person?
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:

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