LOCKPORT, NY - Health officials continue to investigate an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease in Niagara County, which has now been linked to two deaths.
Dan Stapleton, Director of Public Health for the county, tells 2 On Your Side Tuesday a 9th potential case from the Lockport-area is now being investigated. Officials are awaiting test results that are expected back late this week or early next week to confirm if the case is indeed Legionnaires.
Under state law, health care facilities with towers or tanks storing water for heating and cooling systems must routinely test that water for presence of legionella, the bacterium that causes the pneumonia-like Legionnaires disease.
During one of the routine tests earlier this month, one of the water towers at Eastern Niagara Hospital yielded a sample with a level in excess of the safety limit.
Around the same time, there was discovered a so called cluster of 8 cases of Legionnaires disease in the Lockport-area.
The Niagara County Health Department has reallocated some of their resources to focus solely on this most recent outbreak of cases.
However, according to Stapleton, there has been “no connection whatsoever” established between the hospital water tower and the Legionnaires outbreak.
Stapleton also said tests done since the hospital drained and sanitized the tower now give the water being used inside of it a clean bill of health.
“Any bodies of water, manmade or natural, most likely contain legionella bacteria,” said Stapleton, adding that Legionnaires Disease is not a strange phenomenon.
"We’ve had 16 cases so far this year, we had 12 cases last year and 12 cases the year before," he said.
The majority of people exposed to the bacteria, never develop Legionnaires disease.
“Generally, you have to have an already compromised immune system,” said Stapleton, and the NY State Department of Health confirms the two persons in the cluster who recently died after contracting Legionnaires both had their immune systems compromised due to underlying health conditions.
While citing privacy laws that would preclude him from listing the underlying conditions that those who succumbed to the disease had, Stapleton offered that those most at risk could have their immune systems compromised by such things as chemotherapy, cancer, or chronic diseases such as diabetes or asthma -- and even smoking.
The water that contained legionella which was found in the tower at the Eastern Niagara is used strictly for an air conditioning system, and is not part of the separate water supply which is used for human consumption, according to the hospital.
Moreover, legionella is typically transmitted by breathing in aerosolized water that is contaminated with the bacteria, not by drinking the water. Thus, public water systems are not commonly found to the source of legionella outbreaks.
Legionnaires Disease, most commonly treated with antibiotics, is not contagious between people.
In the meantime, state health department epidemiologists are continuing to try and get to the bottom of the cases involved in the outbreak.
“Right now they are trying to find if there's an epidemiological connection with all those cases," said Stapleton. “They are trying to determine, for example, if these people work in the same place, eat in in the same restaurant, shop in the same store, or go to the same school. They’re trying to find out if there’s some source that's common, and if there is some source that's common, what is the approach to eliminate that source or modify or manage that source. And so far we haven’t found that common denominator…other than the fact that all those people had compromised immune systems. That’s the one thing we have.”