Legionnaires’ Disease Risk in Schools After COVID-19 Lockdown

DiseaseAs schools are reopening following a long-term lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them are discovering a new threat: Legionnaires’ disease.

Nine Schools Discover Legionnaires’ Disease

In addition to the coronavirus, officials in Ohio found Legionella pneumophila, the virus that causes Legionnaires’ disease, in the water system at five schools last week. And on August 28, a district in Pennsylvania also announced that it had Legionella at four of its schools.

“It is unusual to hear about nine schools in a one-week period having a detection of Legionella,” said Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Indiana’s Purdue University. Whelton has been studying the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on water systems. He added that more schools may be testing for Legionella pneumophila than in a typical year.

Legionella can form in stagnant water and then disperse through the air and be inhaled if a shower or tap is turned on, causing Legionnaires’ disease, a serious respiratory condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the illness is deadly in ten percent of cases, particularly for older students, adults, and those who have compromised immune systems.

COVID-19 Precautions May Increase Risk of Illness

Many schools have been unoccupied since March in order to protect against the spread of COVID-19, resulting in their bathrooms, sports facilities, and cafeterias going unused. Typically, schools have low occupancy during summer breaks, but many stay open for summer school and other activities. In the absence of those programs because of the lockdown, some experts worry that water has been left to stagnate in school plumbing and that schools do not have plans from health authorities for dealing with the effects of prolonged shutdowns of their water.

And the precautions that schools are taking to limit infection from COVID-19 could also add to the risk of Legionnaires’ disease. For example, many schools have shut off every other sink to ensure social distancing, turned off drinking fountains to prevent oral spread of the coronavirus, and closed sports facilities because of the risk to coaches and student athletes.

However, this stagnant water in unused drinking fountains, sinks, and shower heads could allow Legionella pneumophila to grow, so facilities managers need to be on guard for the bacteria in school athletics complexes if sports start again – and they may not be. According to Whelton, many people who are responsible for managing buildings’ water systems have “no idea you can acquire Legionella from showers and toilets.”

The standard method of preventing growth of Legionella pneumophila is “flushing,” wherein you bring fresh water into a system but keep a small dose of chlorine in it as well, therefore limiting the bacteria’s ability to propagate. However, this process has to be done regularly and for all outlets, which means running every tap, toilet, and shower.

Ohio’s Englewood Elementary School began flushing its system in July of this year. When a water management company discovered Legionella there last week, they shut down all the water in the school and pushed a high level of chlorine through the system. A district spokesperson said that the district is continuing to test the water to make sure that it is safe. This is the only way to ensure that this approach is effective, as flushing one time will likely not get rid of Legionella if it is present.

But Caitlin Proctor, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue who has been studying Legionella pneumophila during the coronavirus lockdowns, said that even with the use of chlorine, the bacteria’s biofilms can protect some of them from disappearing completely. “They can proliferate again once that disinfectant dissipates.”

Officials of the Fox Chapel Area School District near Pittsburgh, which also detected Legionella in many of its schools, told parents in an email that they were sending high-temperature water through their systems, a process known as “thermal shock,” which has been proposed by county health authorities as an alternative way to kill off the bacteria. Nevertheless, some industry groups have questioned the effectiveness of this method.

Additionally, certain schools do not have the funds to test for Legionella, though even schools with sufficient budgets have encountered a lack of advice that is authoritative. For example, many of them test their water directly after flushing, but because the water is fresh at that point, Legionella will not show up in the test, rendering it ineffective.

Furthermore, there is not a requirement for schools to test for Legionella pneumophila, and there is no mandate for them to report it when they find it, though health authorities are required by the CDC to notify it about instances of Legionnaires’ disease, the illness caused by the bacteria. For this reason, some schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania have opened up despite their inability to confirm the elimination of Legionella, a process that can take weeks. This can be a cause for concern for parents.

“If parents haven’t heard from their schools about whether or not testing is being conducted,” said Whelton, “then they should start asking questions.”

Personal Injury Lawyers Fighting for Legionnaires’ Disease Victims

If you have contracted Legionnaires’ disease in a negligent school or another facility, the personal injury attorneys at GWC Injury Lawyers LLC will fight for you.

GWC is one of the premier Personal Injury and Workers’ Compensation law firms in Illinois, with more than $2 billion recovered on behalf of wrongfully injured clients. We have the experience, the determination, the resources, and the reputation of success necessary to get you and your family the justice you deserve.

Contact GWC today to schedule a no-cost, no-obligation case evaluation with one of our Chicago personal injury lawyers. You can call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.