Legionella bacteria found at 4 more Chesterfield County locations

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- The Chesterfield County Health Department said it has confirmed four more cases of the Legionella bacteria at sites in the northeastern part of the county.

This comes as the county continues to investigate ten cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the area since May 1. On average, the county normally sees three cases of the disease each year.

District Health Director Dr. Alexander Samuel told CBS 6 the confirmation came last week. He said the bacteria was found in cooling towers at Johnston Willis Hospital in the 1400 block of Johnston Willis Dr., the Richmond Ice Zone in the 600 block of Johnston Willis Dr., the U.S. Defense Supply Center Richmond in the 8000 block of Jefferson Davis Highway, and Reynolds Metals in the 2000 block of Reymet Rd.

These discoveries come after the bacteria was found in a cooling tower at Greenfield Elementary School in the 10700 block of Savoy Rd.

Investigators have been testing sites in the northeastern portion of the county after ten cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been confirmed in that area since May 1. The most recent confirmed case was in mid-July.

The Legionella bacteria can cause Legionnaire’s disease which is a type of pneumonia. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) said the disease is “more common and more severe” in people who are 50-years or older, current/former smokers, those with “underlying lung disease (such as emphysema), and people with weakened immune systems.”

VDH added the bacteria occurs naturally in the environment and grows best in warm water, such as is found in air conditioning cooling towers. “The bacteria get into the air when a mist or spray of water is created. People breathe in the mist that has been contaminated with the bacteria and then they might become sick. In general, the bacteria do not spread from person to person.”

Dr. Samuel said in all five cases, the bacteria was of the Lp1 strain.

He added that none of the sites have been definitively linked to the ten cases in the county, but they have not been ruled out either. He said they are awaiting further lab testing to see if there is a genetic match between the bacteria found at the sites and the bacteria found in the patients. However, he said even that may not provide a conclusive answer.

Dr. Samuel said the health department informed the four sites of the bacteria’s discovery and told them how to treat the bacteria. He added that to his knowledge, the four sites are following the county’s advice.

A spokesperson for HCA Virginia, which runs Johnston Willis Hospital, sent the following statement to CBS 6 regarding the discovery:

“The safety of our patients, visitors, and staff is our top priority. We have worked closely with the health department and completed the recommended treatment plan on our cooling system. Infection control experts agree there is no evidence of transmission within the hospital and there has been no impact on patient care.”

The Richmond Ice Zone provided the following statement to CBS 6:

"The safety of our customers and staff is always our top priority. We have worked closely with the health department and our water treatment contractor in following the recommended treatment plan for the cooling tower. The treated system I as closed looped system that cools the underground piping for our ice sheet and does not have any exposure to the public. This is not an air conditioning system. The health department assured us that there was no risk to the public or staff and that we could continue normal operations."

As for the first site where the bacteria was found, Greenfield Elementary School, the superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) sent a letter to Greenfield parents on Monday and stated that an outside firm has finished cleaning the cooling tower and the school is expected to reopen this week.

When the bacteria was first discovered in late July, CCPS moved summer school at Greenfield to nearby Weaver Elementary School. Summer school has since finished.

As to the ten patients who contracted Legionnaires’ disease, Dr. Samuel said that the majority of them have been treated and released, while those who remain in the hospital are on the road to recovery.

He added the health department continues to investigate the cause of the cases, but said the investigation has not gone beyond the northeastern section of the county because there have been no new cases of the disease.

The Chesterfield Health District said, out of an abundance of caution, anyone who becomes “ill with pneumonia-like or respiratory symptoms, such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and headache promptly seek medical care.”

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