Legionnaires' disease is a type of lung infection that is caused by bacteria living in warm water. You get it by breathing in affected water droplets and there are many ways to be exposed.

Legionnaires’ update: Sheraton Atlanta cases rise to 9 

The number of people who either stayed or visited the Sheraton Atlanta and were sickened with Legionnaires’ disease has climbed from six to nine, according to the Georgia Department of Health. 

The Sheraton Atlanta on Courtland Street shut down last Monday after three guests who recently stayed at the hotel tested positive for the disease, which causes serious lung infections. The Georgia Department of Public Health reported three more people who were either  guests or visited the hotel had also tested positive last week. Monday, the Health Department added three more to the total. 

Joel Gonzalez was turned away Tuesday morning from the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel on Courtland Street.
Photo: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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The hotel announced Friday it will remain closed until at least Aug. 11 after several guests were sickened with Legionnaires’ disease, and testing to determine the source of the outbreak continues. 

In an e-mailed statement last week, Sheraton Atlanta General Manager, Ken Peduzzi said the following about the status of the Legionella Testing: 

"Immediately upon notification from local authorities concerning a possible Legionella exposure, the hotel retained outside environmental consultants and is presently collecting samples at the Hotel. At this time it remains unknown if the source of the exposure is located within the hotel. Samples will be collected from various areas of the hotel, including the pool, hot tub, fountain, and chillers. These samples will be sent for Legionella testing." 

Peduzzi also said the hotel management is working to help employees find temporary jobs while the Sheraton Atlanta is closed. 

Legionnaires’ disease is caused by the Legionella bacteria, which is found naturally in freshwater environments, like lakes and streams, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, the agency says, it can become a health concern when it grows and spreads in human-made building water systems. 

Hot tubs, air conditioning units and mist sprayers at grocery stores also are prime breeding grounds for the bacteria. It can multiply in water fountains and ice-making machines, as well. 

You can’t catch Legionnaires’ disease from person-to-person contact. Instead, most people get sick when they breathe in mist or steam and the bacterium makes its way into the lungs. 

The Sheraton Atlanta closed voluntarily, Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said. 

The number of Legionnaries’ cases are on the rise. Nearly 7,500 people contracted Legionnaires' disease in 2017, a more than fivefold increase in the number of cases since 2000 (when it was about 1,100) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is believed the actual number is far higher since many people got sick and never got care or tested. 

A variety of factors may be contributing to the increase according to the CDC, including more awareness, improved testing, an aging population more susceptible to Legionnaires’. Another factor could be more Legionella in the environment. But it’s unclear which of these factors are driving the increase or whether it’s a combination of them, according to the CDC. 

In Georgia, there has been close to 90 confirmed cases of Legionnaires in Georgia, according to the state Department of Public Health. Last year, there were 180 confirmed cases and nine suspected cases in the state. That’s up from 41 in 2008. 

The downtown Atlanta Sheraton Hotel where three people possibly caught Legionnaires' disease. The Georgia Department of Health closed the hotel until further notice.

 

Photo: WSBTV.com

Nydam said guests who stayed at the hotel between June 12 and July 15 should contact their health care provider if they are suffering from respiratory illness. 

About one in 10 people who come down with Legionnaires’ disease die due to complications from their illness, the CDC said. One in four who contract the disease while staying in a health-care facility will die, as their immune systems are already compromised. 

Those who get the sickest and face complications tend to be over 50, have medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or diabetes or have a history of smoking. 

The disease got its name after a 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia. Of the more than 2,000 members who attended the convention, 182 came down with the serious, atypical form of pneumonia, and 29 died. 

Nydam said Tuesday that testing for Legionella bacteria at hotels typically begins in pools, hot tubs and water fountains, the most likely culprits of the bacterium. The investigation can expand well beyond those water sources, stretching in to the hotel’s water supply system, including the plumbing system, she said. 

The team of investigators will look for clues — such as whether all the sickened guests stayed on the same floor – that could help in finding the contaminated source. 

Until testing is complete, health officials say they can’t be sure that the hotel is the source of the outbreak, though no other locations are being tested for Legionella. 

It is believed all six people sickened with Legionnaires were attending the same conference at the Sheraton Atlanta. 

Nydam said epidemiologists are reaching out to individuals who stayed at the hotel and may be experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness. Those symptoms include a cough, fever and muscle aches. Legionnaires’ disease can also be associated with other symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, and confusion. Symptoms usually begin two to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria, but it can take longer. People should watch for symptoms for about two weeks after exposure.

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