The hotel shut down voluntarily as tests are done to determine if Legionella bacteria is present. The bacteria 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 multiplies in human-made building water systems.
The consultants hired by the hotel are working with epidemiologists and environmental health staff from the state health department and Fulton County Board of Health.
The hotel will be closed until at least Aug. 11 and may remain closed for several weeks longer, depending on the test results and whether remediation is necessary.
One major event coming up is Dragon Con, which starts in late August. The hotel was one of five host hotels for the event.
Dragon Con spokesman Greg Euston said while organizers hope the Sheraton Atlanta will reopen in time for the event, they are working on a contingency plan.
Peduzzi said his staff is reaching out to guests with upcoming reservations to help them find other accommodations. Those affected also can call Marriott, the parent company of Sheraton, at 1-888-236-2427 and a reservationist can help re-book. Guests whose reservations are canceled will receive a full refund, he said.
The Sheraton also is working to help employees find temporary jobs during the hotel closure, Peduzzi said.
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Most people who become ill from the disease have breathed in mist or steam infected with Legionella and the bacterium makes its way into the lungs. Legionnaires’ isn’t spread from person-to-person contact.
The number of Legionnaires’ cases are on the rise. Nearly 7,500 people in the United States contracted the disease in 2017, increasing by more than five-fold since 2000 when the total cases that year was about 1,100, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is believed the actual number in 2017 is far higher because many people get sick and never get care or tested, according to the CDC.
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.
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.
Since Legionnaires’ is not a communicable disease, it is often not seen “as big of a traditional health threat” as other diseases like measles, said Allison Chamberlain, an Emory University infectious disease epidemiologist who has researched Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks.
“It’s the sort of the thing we might not think will happen because we have such trust in our water supply, but this particular pathogen can flourish in what we think of as safe water,” she said.
While Chamberlain encourages greater awareness about the disease, she said there’s no need for people to take drastic action.
“You have to live your life, and you can’t stop traveling,” said Chamberlain. “But I like to tell people to be aware of what Legionnaires’ is. And if you have concerns, and have traveled recently, and if you have symptoms that might align with pneumonia, perhaps you should get tested, especially if you have risk factors for complications.”
About one in 10 people who come down with Legionnaires’ disease die due to complications from the illness, the CDC said. 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.
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.
When seeking treatment, former guests should tell their doctors that they stayed at hotel with a Legionella outbreak, the Georgia Department of Public Health said. This can help with proper treatment and assist in the investigation.