Contractor recommended Legionella testing for Chesterfield schools in April

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- The cooling towers at 34 schools in Chesterfield County not already identified for Legionella testing will be cleaned and treated by Monday, Chesterfield County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Merv Daugherty said in an email to parents and staffers.

Daugherty said the school system has developed a preventative maintenance plan for the cooling towers after three district schools, Falling Creek Middle, Greenfield Elementary and Midlothian Middle, tested positive for Legionella bacteria earlier this month.

WTVR CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit examined Chesterfield's HVAC inspection reports over the past year, which showed contractor Water Chemistry, Inc. conducted inspections for the school system.

The reports noted that all HVAC systems in Chesterfield Schools have seen minimal or no service performed over the last two or more years, which could result in negative impacts.

The contractor also recommended Legionella testing be performed on all cooling towers as recently as April of this year.

Daugherty said in his email that the school system had "gone above and beyond health experts' suggestions and requirements" after the three schools tested positive "out of an abundance of caution."

BONUS: Click here to read complete email from Superintendent Daugherty

Health officials: 11 confirmed Legionnaires' cases 

The Chesterfield Health District (CHD) announced earlier this month that there had been 11 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease since May 1. On average, the county normally sees three cases of the disease each year.

The cases, the latest of which was announced Aug. 8, involved older adults and people with certain medical conditions, according to health officials.

Officials are searching for possible sources of the Legionella bacteria in the northeastern portion of the county.

The CHD said “because there were no common water or facility exposures identified among cases, cooling towers became a suspected mode of transmission." It added that they have collected samples from 12 sites within a common geographical area.

As of August 6, investigators said they have confirmed the presence of the Legionella pneumophila serogroup 1 (Lp1) of the Legionella bacteria at seven sites, including three Chesterfield County public schools.

The CHD said Legionella bacteria "are found naturally in the environment and are commonly identified in building water systems and devices that are not adequately maintained."

It added they expected to find the bacteria when they tested for it, but added that there were several types of it. It said the Lp1 serogroup is “the type most commonly associated with developing Legionnaires’ disease."

CHD Director Dr. Alexander Samuel spearheaded the investigation and efforts to pinpoint a source of the bacteria.

"My biggest fear is that people will blow this out of proportion. This is not a public health emergency," Samuel stated. "We are still in this phase with this could this be simply his issue of seeing more cases because of enhanced surveillance."

Samuel said they're focusing on cooling towers after studying similarities of the 11 confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease. Epidemiologists have ruled out the water supply, false negative reports, and common facilities as links to the cases.

"Today, we cannot say we're linking anything to any one source," Samuel said.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has a spreadsheet showing the results and statuses of the tests. The CHD added that testing has not been completed on all 12 sites, and additional testing of these samples is pending.

The five other sites tested include two more county schools -- Meadowbrook High School on Cogbill Road and Hopkins Road Elementary School. Tests on both those schools came back negative.

Results are pending at the other sites: Kaiser Aluminum on Reymet Road, Aleris on Reymet Road, and the US Marine Corps Services Center on Strathmore Road.

"The risk to residents or visitors to Chesterfield County remains small,” said Dr. Samuel. “The health department continues to make every effort to identify cases of Legionnaires’ disease and will continue to work with facilities to remediate any potential source of exposure.”

More information from the VDH about Legionnaires’ disease can be found here.

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