Health officials have found the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease at seven locations in Chesterfield County, including Falling Creek Middle School, Midlothian Middle School and Johnston-Willis Hospital.
The number of affected sites has been growing since Chesterfield officials disclosed last week that the bacteria was found at Greenfield Elementary School, a discovery that prompted school officials to move the summer school program to Bettie Weaver Elementary School.
The LP1 strain of the Legionella bacteria has also been found at the Richmond Ice Zone skating rink on Johnston Willis Drive, Reynolds Metals Co. on Reymet Road, and Defense Supply Center Richmond on Jefferson Davis Highway, said Dr. Alex Samuel, a state official who is director of the Chesterfield Health District.
Health officials have been scouring sites in Chesterfield following 10 confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia, among residents in the northeast part of the county over the past couple of months, but they acknowledge they may never know exactly where any of the patients contracted it. Health officials said they normally expect to see an average of three cases over the course of a summer.
The bacteria, which occurs naturally in lakes and streams, was found in cooling towers at the seven locations, Samuel said. Cooling towers are a major source of the disease because they contain warm water for the bacteria to grow, and water droplets from the towers can spread it through the air.
Four of the sites where the bacteria was found are in Midlothian, while the rest are in the eastern part of the county.
Samuel said it is important to keep the discoveries of the bacteria in multiple sites in context, adding it doesn’t mean there’s any type of outbreak.
“When you test for something, you’re going to find it. Really, this bacteria is fairly common,” Samuel said. “The greater issue, of course, is whether the sites that have tested positive were the source of bacteria that caused the Legionnaires’ in the cases. That has not yet been determined.”
Officials may never know the answer to that question, Samuel said, adding it’s a complicated task to definitively link the cases to the sites.
“We have the 10 cases, which could simply be an increase over normal [levels] that we might never be able to explain,” Samuel said. “We simply want to go through an investigation to rule out potential sources.”
Chesterfield school officials have been sending emails to parents in the three schools in recent days and weeks, noting that no school or staff members at the three schools have reported becoming sick as result of the bacteria, which was found in outside cooling towers.
The school system sent messages to parents in the two middle schools on Tuesday saying that the facilities would be closed on Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution” and that the cooling towers at the schools were being cleaned.
Chesterfield school officials on Tuesday also sent an email to Greenfield Elementary School parents telling them that the cooling tower there had been cleaned and that officials hoped the school would reopen this week.
Malorie Burkett, a Johnston-Willis spokeswoman, said the hospital had completed a recommended treatment plan for its cooling system.
“Infection control experts agree there has been no evidence of transmission within the hospital, and there is no impact on patient care,” Burkett wrote in an email.
Mike Lyons, general manager at Richmond Ice Zone, said the business on Wednesday was in the final stretch of its efforts to eradicate the bacteria.
“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 is a closed loop system that cools the underground piping for the ice sheet, and it does not have any exposure to public areas. It’s not an air conditioning system,” Lyons said in a prepared statement. “The health department assured us that there is no risk to the public or staff and that we can continue normal operations.”
The disease, which is treated with antibiotics, does not spread from person-to-person contact, according to the Mayo Clinic. Instead, most people contract it by inhaling the germs.
The 10 recent cases in Chesterfield occurred among older adults and people with underlying medical conditions, according to state officials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the rate of reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease nationwide has grown nearly 5½ times since 2000. That increase might be due to increased awareness and testing, more people being susceptible to infection, increased Legionella in the environment or some combination of factors, the Virginia Department of Health said in a news release.
Last year, there were 236 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Virginia, compared with 78 cases in 2010, according to state health officials.