Health Care

August outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Franklin and Grand Isle counties results in 1 death

Illustration of Legionella pneumophila, the bacterium that causes the majority of Legionnaires’ disease cases and outbreaks. The risk to Vermont residents remains “very low,” according to the Vermont Department of Health. Image via U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Vermont Department of Health is alerting Franklin and Grand Isle county residents about five cases of Legionnaires’ disease that were recorded in August.

In a press release Tuesday, the department said that one individual, in their 70s, has died of the disease. The other four individuals have recovered or are in various stages of recovery, said deputy state epidemiologist Laura Ann Nicolai. 

The five cases were reported between Aug. 12 and Aug. 29, occurring primarily in the St. Albans area, according to Nicolai. The source of the outbreak hasn’t been determined but the department is continuing to run environmental sampling and testing.

Nicolai said the risk to residents remains “very low” and noted that many individuals do not become sick when exposed to the disease. 

In mid-September, the department sent an update to health care providers about the cases, asking them to look for symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease in their patients.

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria. This naturally occurring bacteria is often found in fresh water but generally not in sufficient numbers to cause the disease. 

The bacteria poses a hazard to individuals when it replicates in built stagnant water systems, such as air-conditioning units for large buildings, showerheads, sink faucets and hot tubs. It almost never is spread between individuals, according to the department. 

The Department of Health is continuing to remind building owners to make sure their water management systems are properly maintained to help minimize the growth and transmission of Legionella, according to the release.

On average, from 2017 to 2021, the Department of Health recorded 15 cases a year in Vermont, Nicolai said. 

Symptoms, which can appear two to 14 days after exposure, include cough, muscle aches, fever, shortness of breath and headache. Individuals are often hospitalized due to the disease but can usually be treated with antibiotics.

The fatality rate of Legionnaires’ disease is 10%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Individuals who are over the age of 50, who currently smoke or formerly smoke and those with chronic lung disease or who are immunocompromised are at a higher risk for Legionnaires’ disease.

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Juliet Schulman-Hall

About Juliet

Juliet Schulman-Hall recently graduated from Smith College, majoring in English, minoring in sociology and concentrating in poetry. Most recently, she has worked for MassLive covering abortion and the environment, among other topics. Prior to that, she worked for Ms. Magazine and has done freelance work for PBS's Next Avenue and Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

Email: jschulman-hall@vtdigger.org

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