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Buildings closed by coronavirus face another risk: Legionnaires’ disease

April 2020

Public health experts are urging landlords across the globe to carefully re-open buildings to prevent outbreaks of Legionnaires’ Disease. A severe, sometimes lethal, form of pneumonia.

The report states that a sudden and sweeping closures of schools, factories, businesses and government offices has created an unprecedented decline in water use. The lack of chlorinated water flowing through pipes, combined with irregular temperature changes, have created conditions ripe for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, they said.

As communities consider reopening, any commercial facility vacated or underutilized for more than three weeks is at risk for a Legionnaires’ outbreak, unless the water pipes are properly flushed and otherwise sanitized, health experts and government officials say.

“After surviving COVID-19, who wants to open a building and have another set of significant safety issues?” said Molly Scanlon, an Arizona environmental health scientist who is leading a coronavirus task force for the American Institute of Architects. “Our medical system is already under enough stress as it is.”

Those at risk include schools, gyms, factories, hotels, restaurants and medical centres. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the threat also applies to hot tubs, water fountains, sprinkler systems and millions of water cooling towers atop commercial buildings (similar warnings have been made by the Health & Safety Executive in the UK).

“It’s a worldwide problem, one that can be solved with precautions,” said British microbiologist Susanne Surman-Lee, who co-drafted reopening guidelines for the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. “Most major corporations with consultants are likely to be aware of the stagnant water systems issue, but this is going to be a challenge for smaller retail-style shops, health clubs and hotels.”

Legionnaires’ Disease, a pneumonia named after a deadly 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia, is the chief waterborne illness in the United States. Nearly 50,000 people were infected between 2000 and 2015, according to the US Center for Disease Control.

People with Legionnaires’ disease develop pneumonia. Healthy people usually recover, but often require hospitalisation and antibiotics to treat the lung infection. About one in 10 die, according to the CDC, but among those who get Legionnaires’ during a hospital stay, one in four do not survive.

Legionnaires’ Disease infects people when legionella bacteria is disseminated into the air as an aerosol from water sources, such as hot tubs, showerheads, fountains and industrial water cooling systems.

The threat from Legionnaires’ Disease is compounded, some experts said, because its victims tend to display the same symptoms as coronavirus patients, including cough, chills and fever, making misdiagnosis a possibility.

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