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Extended closure heightens risk of legionella in Metro Detroit school buildings

Educators express legionella concerns on top of COVID-19 complications

The coronavirus (COVID-19) isn’t the only illness that educators and parents are worried about as students head back to school. The early and extended closure of school buildings has also heightened the risk of legionella.

Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease, and it has been detected in several schools near Dayton, Ohio, and in a Pittsburgh suburb.

The bacteria was detected during routine testing as the buildings were prepared to reopen. Officials say those discoveries should serve as warnings to other schools.

“These things happen with old buildings or buildings that aren’t used often, so, I mean, we trust the experts that they flushed the system,” parent Derek Coatney said.

Legionella can form in stagnant water, from locker room shower heads to drinking fountains to classroom sinks that have gone unused longer than usual due to the pandemic.

The bacteria spreads though mist when those water sources are turned on, and if inhaled, it can cause Legionnaires' disease.

“It’s cough, fever, shortness of breath and, unfortunately, sounds a lot like COVID-19,” said Dr. Alan Taege, an infectious disease expert at the Cleveland Clinic. “It might be a little difficult to differentiate.”

Younger, healthy people exposed to legionella are less likely to get sick than older adults and those with weakened immune systems.

Legionnaires' disease is generally treated with antibiotics, but it can be deadly.

“It’s not something people need to have a heightened fear of, but just a respect,” Taege said.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for reopening buildings after prolonged shutdowns. Officials said those guidelines, including testing and flushing water systems, can apply to schools. Those are steps many schools have taken to keep students and staff members safe.

The best way to prevent legionella from growing is to keep water moving through flushing systems and letting water run from every tap, fountain and shower at regular intervals. If this wasn’t done during the shutdown, schools need to be proactive about testing the water.

Hot tubs or spas that have been shut down in gyms could also be a legionella risk.


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