55 ‘probable’ Legionnaires’ cases linked to Sheraton Atlanta; 11 confirmed

Atlanta hotel closes after guests test positive for Legionnaires'

Days after officials confirmed the 11th case of Legionnaires’ disease related to the Sheraton Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Public Health announced Monday that 55 more cases are “probable.”

The additional dozens of cases have not been confirmed in a lab, but they include people who had illnesses consistent with Legionnaires’ disease, such as pneumonia, the DPH said in a news release.

About two weeks ago, the Courtland Street hotel shut down voluntarily after three guests who had recently visited or stayed there tested positive for the disease, which can cause a potentially serious lung infection, AJC.com previously reported. By Friday, that count had increased to 11.

MORE: Legionnaires' cases linked to Sheraton Atlanta rise to 11

People who are older than 50, have medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or diabetes, or have a history of smoking are the most likely to face dire effects. But no deaths have been reported, according to the DPH.

Investigators have yet to determine whether the hotel is indeed the source of the outbreak, but the Sheraton Atlanta will remain closed until at least Aug. 11.

RELATED: Legionnaires' outbreak shuts down Atlanta hotel and prompts probe

DPH and Fulton County Board of Health investigators have been reviewing hundreds of survey responses from people who stayed or visited the hotel between June 12 and July 15. It could take weeks to parse through the surveys, the DPH said.

Investigators have also taken environmental samples for testing and remediation. The first round of environmental samples were collected July 19, and a second round of samples are being collected Monday.

When testing hotels for Legionella bacteria, which cause Legionnaires’ disease, investigators typically begin in pools, hot tubs and water fountains, the most likely culprits of the bacterium, DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said. The investigation can expand well beyond those water sources, stretching into the hotel’s water supply system, including the plumbing system, she said.

MORE: What is Legionnaires' disease? FAQs about the severe form of pneumonia

The Sheraton Atlanta may remain closed for several weeks longer, depending on the test results and whether remediation is necessary.

Legionella bacteria are 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 multiplies in human-made building water systems.

In Georgia, there have been close to 90 confirmed cases this year, 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.

A variety of factors may be contributing to the increase, according to the CDC. More awareness of the disease could mean more reporting. But there’s also improved testing, and an aging population is more susceptible. Another factor could be more Legionella in the environment.

Officials stressed that the disease is not spread from person-to-person contact. The bacterium makes its way into the lungs of most people who become ill after they breathe in mist or steam infected with Legionella.

About one in 10 people who come down with Legionnaires' disease will die due to complications from the illness, the CDC said.


Sheraton Atlanta and Legionnaires’ disease

Guests who stayed at the Sheraton Atlanta between June 12 and July 15 should speak of their health-care provider if they are experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said when seeking treatment, former guests should tell their doctors that they stayed at a hotel with a Legionella outbreak. This can help with proper treatment and assist with the investigation.

What is Legionnaires’ disease?

It’s a severe form of pneumonia — lung inflammation usually caused by infection — caused by a bacterium known as Legionella.

How does it spread?

You can’t catch Legionnaires’ disease from person-to-person contact. Instead, most people get the disease from inhaling the bacteria. Older adults, smokers and people with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible.

What are the symptoms?

Legionnaires’ usually develops two to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria and often begins with these symptoms: headache, muscle pain, chills and a fever that may be 104 degrees or higher. By the second or third day, other symptoms may include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and confusion or other mental changes. Left untreated, it can be fatal.

How is it treated?

Prompt treatment with antibiotics usually provides the cure, but some people continue to experience problems after treatment.