Rare Legionnaires’ Disease Outbreak in Napa: 1 Dead, 11 Sick

Napa County officials think a hotel’s cooling tower could be to blame but are investigating other sources for the exotic and deadly bacteria

In a state already reeling from COVID in all its forms and, lately, monkeypox, an unwelcome old-school illness made an appearance in Napa County, where Legionnaires’ Disease sickened 12 people yesterday, one of them fatally.

As ABC News reports, the 11 surviving patients, three of whom remain hospitalized, were stricken in July, and may have contracted the water-born illness from a cooling tower at the hotel Embassy Suites Napa Valley, where “high levels” of Legionella bacteria were found in a recent sample. While the cooling tower has been suspended, officials from Napa County’s Department of Public Health say they are still searching for other possible sources of contamination.

“Our joint investigation team continues to work with Embassy Suites staff to remediate the source of exposure,” Napa County health officer Dr. Karen Relucio said in a statement. “Finding Legionella in one water sample is an important piece of the puzzle, but we must continue to investigate other cooling towers and water sources in the outbreak area, as it is common to find more than one source.”

None of the patients are known to have been guests at Embassy Suites.

The Legionella bacteria thrives in warm water and becomes a threat if it spreads to man-made water systems like cooling towers, hot tubs, and plumbing systems. It can be transmitted to humans who breathe in tiny bacteria-carrying water droplets, but it’s not passed between people.

The respiratory infection causes severe pneumonia and often begins with flu-like symptoms (aches, headache, fatigue, cough) that progress to high fever, chills, gastric distress, and, sometimes, death. It’s especially dangerous to older people and the immunocompromised.

Health officials have stated that the person who died in Napa’s outbreak was over 50 and had risk factors for “severe disease”—but this distinction is unlikely to reassure Californians wary after two years of COVID.

“Although Legionnaires’ disease is a rare infection, this is a reminder that the bacteria that cause it are common in nature and can be found in man-made water systems,” Relucio said. “This means it’s very important for owners and managers of water systems that can create aerosols to take steps to prevent Legionella from growing and spreading in water systems.”

The disease takes its name from the site of its first reported outbreak, in 1976, when a Legionnaire Convention in Philadelphia saw 221 people sickened, 34 of whom died. A contaminated hotel air-conditioning system was implicated in that case. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Legionnaires’ Disease typically kills one out of ten people it infects.

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